Transparency, Police And The Public: Searching For Peace In The Age Of Personal Surveillance Devices


Every week it seems there is a plethora of new videos posted online that capture occasions of state actors, typically police, allegedly abusing their powers, or employing the use of seemingly unnecessary violence or deadly force. Police violence, passive or overt, is not an issue endemic to a single part of the globe, nor is it a new phenomenon; however, the recent emergence and widespread distribution of personal devices, such as smartphones that have video recording capabilities, has ushered in an era of pervasive surveillance in which the daily routines of state actors are becoming increasingly transparent. It is the intention of this piece to examine the recent emergence of a new form of surveillance and to address the repercussions this is having on the relationship between the police and the public.

Traditional forms of surveillance, such as Close Circuit Television (CCTV) and other public surveillance systems, have become increasingly synonymous with the modern city, and are now generally accepted as part of everyday life. The deployment of a seemingly endless and ever-growing number of surveillance methods is most frequently justified through post-9/11 security-centric rhetoric. It is typically accepted that surveillance technologies are deployed in order to contribute to the maintenance of a safe and secure society, protecting citizens from crime and terrorism by acting as a preventative method or for catching perpetrators.

These forms of surveillance are designed around the notion of “panopticism”. The panopticon, conceptualised by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, is a prison designed so that each inmate is physically visible to the guards,who are themselves unable to be see, watching from a central watch tower at all times. This creates a single, unidirectional gaze through which the few are able to watch the many, not dissimilar to modern forms of surveillance such as CCTV. Bentham speculated that the mere implication that one was constantly being watched would be enough to force the incarcerated to manage their own behaviour, thus implicitly exercising control over them. In the 1970’s Michel Foucault developed the idea of panopticism further, claiming that it exists on a much larger scale and is deployed as a widespread method for social control. He argues that the implementation of surveillance systems, with their panoptic gaze, function primarily to repress individuals and turn them into “docile bodies”.

Panopticism is important in the current context as not only is it the cornerstone of contemporary surveillance theory, but when subverted it provides an effective framework for examining more contemporary issues. Contrary to panoptic theory is sociologist Thomas Mathiesen’s more contemporary “synopticism”:

“syn which stands for ‘together’ or ‘at the same time’, and opticon which again has to do with the visual […] the opposite of the situation where the few see the many. In a two-way and significant double sense of the word we thus live in a viewer society.”

Synopticism embodies the reversal of the unidirectional gaze of traditional surveillance to one of multidirectionality. Where the few once watched the many, the many are now also watching the few. This is becoming increasingly ecognised as “sousveillance”, sous, from the French for “below” or “under”, in opposition to sur, or “from above”. Empowered through modern technologies, the average citizen has the potential to be transformed into a mobile surveillance system, and are thus watching from below. Smartphone technology, namely high definition cameras and almost constant Internet connectivity has created an environment where surveillance data can be produced and distributed almost instantly. In some circumstances, individuals can even live stream video from their mobile phones to global audiences, as has been demonstrated by the very recent introduction of the Facebook “live” feature, which is so young that the repercussions of which are yet to be determined.

The recent eruption of sousvelliance-enabling technologies has resulted an increasing transparency forced upon groups such as the police, bringing to light previously invisible acts of legal malpractice and brutality. The savage beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angles police caught on tape is one of the earliest examples of such malpractice being brought into the public gaze by sousveillant actors. Subsequently, “Cop Watching” groups comprised of citizens, which operate with the intention of policing the police, began to form, ushering in a new era of social transparency and accountability. In the emerging synoptic society, citizens are beginning to distance themselves from the aforementioned Foucauldian docile bodies.

The perceived necessity for these groups articulates the current discontent experienced by individuals living in contemporary society, oppressed by fear or crime and terrorism, however, unable to rely on state institutions for protection for fear of malpractice. Despite promoting accountability for state institutions and actors, ultimately aiming to create a safer society, the adverse effect of this transparency perpetuates disenchantment with the state and its representatives by publicising it, further breeding discontent. Although, irrespective of the negative factors associated with watching the state, the empowerment of individual actors through their role as mobile surveillance units with the ability to distribute information at a rapid rate, encourages human rights discourse on a metropolitan level. As is being witnessed in a growing number of cases, the human right to life, liberty and security is being threatened by the misconduct of state actors.

In 2009, a London local Ian Tomlinson was walking his usual route home from work when he crossed the lines of a protest where demonstrators were clashing with police, and was consequently struck with a baton and rushed by police, causing his eventual death, the Guardian reported. The event was captured on several mobile phone cameras, the most highly circulated video depicting Tomlinson walking, hands in pockets, showing no violent intent or resistance before being attacked by a police officer. The surveillance footage caught by civilian witnesses was used as evidence in the prosecution of the officer who was seen to attack Tomlinson, which eventuated into his dismissal from the police force, as well a compensation payout for Tomlinson’s family. Whether or not justice was served is a subjective matter. This case is significant because of the civilian produced surveillance that forced the accountability of police to be addressed by the legal system, and state actors to be held responsible for their malpractice.

Unfortunately, since the Tomlinson case, increases in transparency are not being met with proportional levels of accountability. It is, however, as aforementioned, fostering public disenchantment with the police force, particularly in the United States. Several recent events in the US over the past month have highlighted the tension that currently exists between the police and citizens, particularly African-Americans. Whilst race certainly plays a highly significant role in the current situation, and must be acknowledged, it is not within the scope of this paper to explore.

Visually recorded incidents of police violence on citizens in the US seem to surface several times a week. On the 5th of July this year multiple onlookers filmed police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shoot and kill Alton Stirling as they were restraining him. Most will argue that the use of deadly force in this case was unnecessary and deeply troubling, especially considering the absence of any evidence at the time of Stirling committing a crime. The incident is currently being investigated by the US Department of Justice and thus a ruling on accountability is yet to be made; however, the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Louisiana handed down a decision to prevent Stirling’s autopsy results from being released to the public.

The day after Alton Stirling was killed, Diamond Reynolds used the Facebook live stream feature to capture and publish the traumatic final moments of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s life as he was shot by a police officer in Minnesota during a traffic stop. Castile’s death was ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office, and similarly to Stirling’s case, an investigation into his death is currently underway.

In the week following the death of both Stirling and Castile thousands took to the streets nationwide for vigils and to peacefully protest, although some incidents of violence between civilians and the police were reported. The visibility of these two cases, and the expansion of witnesses beyond those that were physically present at the time amplified the response significantly.

On the 7th of July, five police officers were shot and killed and a further nine wounded by ex-marine Micah Johnson at a peaceful protest organised by the Black Lives Matter movement in Dallas, Texas, that was taking place in response to the unnecessary deaths of Sterling and Castile. Although there is, and will likely always be, speculation as to Johnson’s motive behind the shooting, it is difficult to express surprise over the sentiment that members of the public feel as though it is necessary to take up arms against the police, an institution that is repeatedly witnessed instigating violence against them. The deaths on both sides are unquestionably tragic and unnecessary, more than that, however, is that they are certainly avoidable. A perpetual cycle of mistrust and violence currently exists between police and members of the public, which is being made increasingly worse as the witnessing of such is becoming increasingly prevalent due to modern technologies.

As it reaches a boiling point, this relationship needs desperately to be addressed. It is difficult to conceive of a reduction in levels of transparency any time in the near future, at least not without introducing legislation to shied state actors from this new visibility. In any case, such legislative changes would likely promote increased levels of disdain amongst the public towards the police, and amplify the current situation rather than subdue it.

State actors, particularly police, whose job relies on a strong, trusting relationship with the public need to exercise reflexivity in the new age of digital transparency. Change is imperative in order to reduce the current levels of violence, and solutions may be found within a thorough assessment of the current attitudes of police, and towards police in order to identify the major issues that currently exist. Accountability for malpractice must be addressed and perhaps even a restructuring of the pre-existing institution may be necessary. The police and the public in the context of this paper in many cases exist as competing forces. This is especially evident when one observes the increasing militarisation of local police departments across the United States, wherein emphasis is placed on aggressive and combative methodologies rather than social progressive ones. This approach is clearly incompatible with social harmony, and evokes symbolism of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Additionally, it is the responsibility of the public to seek complete narratives before taking action. As digital content is created and distributed so quickly the potential to recognise the wider context of a particular event may exist in some circumstances and therefore public reactions may treat an event as more or less significant than it in fact is. Therefore, awareness that the so-called truths captured by surveillance technologies are indeed often only partial truths is also necessary.

Perhaps the most important step that can be taken to reduce violence and establish new and progressive relationships between the public and the police is the maintenance of a dialogue between all parties involved. This new transparency exists as a social fact, and can be treated as a tool for instigating positive change, and ushering in a new era of police public relations. Cooperative and collaborative efforts from both police and citizen groups could have a widespread effect towards the reduction of violence, and promotion of social cohesion between state and citizen.


Sebastien Miller


The Organization for World Peace