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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Saturday, December 09, 2006

transitioning from a police state to policing the police

by now, most folks know that the UCLA police tasered a student about a month ago. I particularly liked danah’s remark, “Welcome to a police state.” if you don't know what I’m talking about, just google "ucla taser" and prepare to be appalled. really rather disturbing stuff. however, I saw something in the LA Times recently that might be subtly more disturbing.

civil rights activists have asked that the LAPD install surveillance cameras in their own stations and cruisers, the idea being that knowledge of constant monitoring would discourage further incidents like that above, or the Rodney King violence, or so many others like them that about which we don’t hear, as well as to properly punish those who carry out such acts when they are committed. interestingly, the LAPD seems to be going along with this plan, although so far not as a full and complete camera deployment. at least, not yet.

this proposal highlights in an interesting way the assumption in our culture that the camera creates a veridical representation of reality. actually, the camera can distort just as much as any personal testimony, but in different ways. a camera can show you images and sound, but it cannot directly capture the thoughts, feelings, and motivations, the subjective experience, of those involved in the acts recorded. obviously, one would want to use video footage in conjunction with personal testimony, but there is a possibility to listen more to the tape than to the witness, since it is assumed that the camera is an “objective” viewer, and objectivism is so highly prized in our society.

moreover, though, I find this troubling because of the Foucauldian overtones of panopticonism. except that rather than having the invisible government in the center, constantly monitoring its citizens, we have something more of an omni-opticon (thanks to meta for this term), where in everyone watches everyone else, and behavioral and social control are exercised by the ever-present gaze of the public on itself.

what I want to know is, who is watching the people who watch the police to make sure that they are not hood-winked into ignoring abuse of police power? are the police being watched by other police? if everyone is watching each other, is anyone watching themselves? what are the consequences of a state of omni-opticonism?

mind you, I’m not arguing that we should not take such measures of oversight in matters of the police. the fact that these cameras were so recently installed and an officer was already, on December 8, arrested for assaulting a hand-cuffed 16-year old boy. unchecked power will grow unchecked until it becomes absolute, and we know what that leads to. my question is, what is the right mechanism of oversight? by virtue of the word “oversight,” are we implying the need for some sort of surveillance? in the LA Times article cited above, one councilman stated that “strong leadership” would be even better at controlling corruption, even though the arrest he gave as an example of strong leadership occurred due to the use of the recently installed cameras. it may be that the most effective mechanism in controlling corruption is such surveillance equipment. however, I then have to ask what the broader consequences and implications are of such moves. what happens when people become accustomed to such constant surveillance in almost every aspect of their lives?

who will protect us from our protectors? who will protect us from ourselves?


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