The Reason Mike Brown Can’t Get Justice Has Nothing To Do With Cameras


After Darren Wilson was released from legal responsibility for his murder of Mike Brown, it seemed everyone wanted to believe things would have happened otherwise were the killing captured on video by cameras. “Put a camera on every cop, and we’ll have fewer Mike Browns,” they said.

But this fails to understand the fundamental nature of both police and of video imagery. We might not need much sophisticated analysis to see this, since the same week Obama announced his campaign to put cameras on 50,000 officers, the videotaped killing of Eric Garner failed to even secure an indictment. Continue reading

A Short Script on On-Officer Wearable Cameras and Civilian Complaints

The scene is an interrogation room. A small room with brick walls, painted in light green-grey. A two-way mirror is on one wall and a surveillance camera is mounted in the corner. 

In the center of the room is a table with a chair on either side. An empty chair is on the side of the table facing a closed door. In the other chair is John, a Black male in his early twenties, wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and some dried blood around one bruised eye. 

An officer in uniform, named Dick, enters the room and sits at the table across from John.

John: Look, I’m not talking to you without my lawyer.

Dick: I understand.

John: No, I don’t think you understand. I want to talk to a white shirt and file a complaint for what you did to me.

Dick: Look, John, we got you for driving without insurance, which is going to cause enough problems for you. But I want to show you something else…

Dick pulls a small device from his duty belt. It looks like a smart phone, only larger and more ‘heavy duty.’ He presses a button and a video begins to play.

Dick: Watch this, right here… I tell you to put your hands behind your back.

The video plays. We hear Dick yelling, “Hands behind your back… behind your back motherfucker… Stop resisting… Stop resisting…” John replies, “I’m not resisting! What are you arresting me for? I have my rights! Tell me what you’re arresting me…” His voice trails off and we hear the sound of tussling bodies and heavy breathing. “Ow! Damn!” Dick stops the video.

John: See, you hit me for no reason. I want my lawyer.

Dick: I told you to put your hands behind your back and you put your arms to the side to avoid being cuffed-

John: I put my hands out so you wouldn’t accuse me of going for a weapon!

Dick: John, I was just attempting to place you in cuffs for my safety, and you resisted. So I can also charge you with resisting arrest.

John: Bullshit, I-

Dick: And when I grabbed your arm you cocked back and elbowed me. That’s assaulting an officer. A felony. You could spend months in jail, maybe more.

John: I didn’t hit you, you hit me! Look at my face! I want to file a complaint.

Dick: Look, John, these complaints never go anywhere and you know that. But they are a real pain in the ass.

John: Well, I’m gonna be a pain in your ass when I sue you.

Dick: John. John. Calm down. Look, you’re facing charges for driving without insurance, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer. You’re looking at some serious time.

John: I want my lawyer.

Dick: How about we make this easier on both of us. If you are willing to let this go, we can stop this all right here and I’ll send you home with a traffic ticket. If you want to go ahead and file that complaint, this video will be played for a jury and you’re going to be doing some hard time. What do you say?

Fade out.

Cameras on Cops and Junk Science in Rialto

Some police departments are turning to wearable cameras, allowing their officers to record interactions with citizens. At the Taser International headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz., Joseph LeDuc, a police officer, checked a video made with such a camera. (Photo: Joshua Lott, The New York Times)

Those of us who don’t confront the potential wide diffusion of on-officer body-worn cameras with excitement and hopefulness have already grown accustomed to some pat responses from advocates. Certain to be among them is the citation of a study from Rialto, California, that has made national news.

As the New York Times reported:

The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July [2013]. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 61. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras during that shift, the study found.

After completion of the study, Britain’s The Guardian relayed the same statistics and reported “Rialto’s randomised controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific – and encouraging – findings.” Civilian police monitoring groups, like Police The Police, touted the new technology with an internet meme that circulated widely on social media. Continue reading

Police Violence Is Not A Problem Because Of Its Invisibility

Officers wearing riot gear walk through a park in downtown St. Louis on Sunday. (Photo: Tom Gannam/AP)


For months, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson and Saint Louis have been sites of ongoing rebellion, with frequent actions of solidarity throughout the United States. Last week, after a grand jury declined to indict Michael Brown’s murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across the country.

In response, today US President Obama proposed a national program to outfit 50,000 police officers with body-worn cameras. Many, including Michael Brown’s family, advocate in favor of wearable cameras for police. Rashad Robinson of wrote today that, “If what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson had been captured on video, we would not be here today—and Michael Brown might be alive.” This advocacy is predicated on the idea that police violence is a problem because it remains hidden. Continue reading

Civilians Less Violent, Cops More Violent, All More Visible

Policing Ferguson. Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty.

Police are safer than ever, civilians are less violent than ever, and violent force and imprisonment is more often to be expected by civilians—all under the watchful eye of cameras.


In the United States, violent crime rates continue to drop. Murders fell by 4.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and are now at the lowest in around 40 years. According to the F.B.I. crime report, the U.S. had an estimated 1.16 million violent crimes last year, the lowest since 1.09 million were recorded in 1978. Adjusting for population, there are 4.3 violent crimes per year, per 1000 population now, compared with 4.9 in 1978. Continue reading

The Visibility of Police Violence as Transparency (and a Preface to My Research)

I’ve been studying surveillance rather intensively for the past four years, and policing for a little less time. But my close familiarity with the intersection of policing and surveillance goes back much further. I was becoming politically aware during the Rodney King events, a reception that was deeply conditioned by my prior witnessing and direct experiences with police violence. By the mid-90s, I was participating in Copwatch activities, mainly filming policing of demonstrations, marches, and other political events. For about a year at the turn of the century, I participated in weekly Copwatch “patrols,” when we drove around “high crime” neighborhoods with a police scanner and stopped to video record any police encounters with civilians.

Most recently, I’ve been researching the intersection of policing and surveillance. I’m paying careful attention to the intentional, politicized activity of documenting policing, or “copwatching.” But I’m also observing the newer and broader occurrence of incidental video documentation of police by civilians. Additionally, I’m researching the activity by political activists and other related actors who advocate for civilians to participate in this form of documentation. My initial research question was: “What explains the proliferation of video documentation of police violence?” This expanded to include the followup: “How can the increased visibility offered by widespread civilian video documentation coincide with the continued or expanded use of violence by police?”

The Rodney King events created a crisis for American policing. But why? For readers who were around for the public, activist, and/or academic discussions that exploded during the early- to mid-90s, you may remember some of the ubiquitous responses. This is one place where I begin my research. Because this was the first major political event in the United State that began with the incidental documentation of police violence, this alone is reason to pay careful attention to this as a genetic moment. But it is also important precisely because of the discourse that emerged in this time. One thing of which I was convinced early in my inquiry is that this discourse continues to saturate the popular, activist, and academic consciousness in all the obvious related matters: police, police brutality, racialization of social control, and so on. But it also saturates the way most intellectuals and theorists talk about citizen journalism, surveillance, media, and accountability of public officials. While commentary on Rodney King seemed to have exhausted itself nearly 20 years ago, the idea of this as a critical moment when incidental documentation of the police produced popular power persists. The remote witnessing, archivability, and recirculation of the video offered a kind of transparency that produced a new kind of accountability.

Continue reading

NYPD: “Militarized to its bones”

In an interesting piece by Tom Engelhart [1], he writes about “the second occupation” going on in New York City right now. By this, he is referring to the police protection of the New York Stock Exchange and its immediate vicinity, which they’ve had locked down since before the marchers arrived on September 17.

He wrote about a recent trip to Wall Street where he saw “the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) — on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it.” Continue reading

“The Whole World Is Watching”: Protest Videos as Techno-Fix

“People don’t want to get involved. They’d rather watch on TV,” said Troy Simmons, 47, who joined demonstrators as he left work. [1]

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

The crowd resounds, chanting condemnation in unison to an army of police abusing Occupy Wall Street protesters.They are, of course, referring to a contingent of protesters and media armed with still and video cameras, who appear to outnumber those protesters without.

Let’s consider this chant, and what’s being said. Continue reading

The Information Society and Cybernetic Sexual Adventure

Sigmund Freud posited that the pleasure principle dictates the purpose of one’s life, and the search for pleasure dominates mental processes, no matter how insurmountably the reality principle interferes (1961, 25). We can experience pleasure only as an “episodic phenomenon,” he argues, and we seek to moderate claims to happiness. We do this through multiple methods: through technology, intoxication, attempting to control our internal impulses and needs, the development of illusions, fetishizing objects, seeking enjoyment aesthetically, among others (ibid. 26-34).

Continue reading