Police Violence Is Not A Problem Because Of Its Invisibility

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Officers wearing riot gear walk through a park in downtown St. Louis on Sunday.

From Ben Brucato

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 ColorOfChange.org 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.

For most of a century, police studies have operated under the idea that policing’s most crucial function—the use of force in the production of social order—is something that occurs outside of the public view. In their influential book, Above The Law, Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe explained this hidden quality of policing has historically been a defining one, but that it was changed with the video recorded beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers.

Policing’s new visibility, as John B. Thompson calls it, is a consequence of surveillance that is rapidly approaching ubiquity. An institution once defined by operating outside of public view is now on exhibition as a result of cameras. Not only are private and government security cameras capturing many spaces—public and private alike—on video, but dash-mounted cameras in police cruisers and weapon-mounted cameras have produced a kind of self-surveillance (in addition to their primary intended functions of gathering evidence to criminally implicate civilians). On-officer wearable cameras, first developed by Taser, were developed from earlier stun-gun cameras (which, captured the moments before Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was shot and killed by police in White Plains, NY).

If we believe police violence is a problem as a result of it being hidden from public view, we should expect to see a crisis in the police institution over the past two decades since the beating of Rodney King. As Skolnick and Fyfe wrote, “in the absence of videotapes or other objective recording of gratuitous violence, brutality rarely causes public controversy and is extremely difficult to prove.” But as I wrote last week, police violence appears to be on the rise in the presence of this new visibility. As much as we might hope for a simple, technological fix to the problem of police violence, more cameras are not the answer.

The reason cameras are not the answer is because Skolnick and Fyfe are wrong. First, we have seen movements against police violence that were provoked by killings not documented by video. Michael Brown’s killing prompted a movement against police violence we have not seen since Rodney King, and this murder was not captured on film. The killing of Kimani Gray by NYPD officers spurred a considerable uprising. Second, many video recorded murders of civilians by police do not produce significant controversies. At least once a month, I archive another video recorded killing by police, and few of these result in significant uprisings, and occasionally they barely make national news.

Video offers no certainty of controversy. Because a supermajority of publics trust police, video can be—and often is—used to excuse police violence. For most viewers, videos of police use of force depict officers who have risky, difficult jobs and must respond without the benefit of hindsight, often in confronting scary (read: Black, disabled, foreign-born) people.

Video may even work to slow the growth of uprisings. People who might rebel may wait for the system to demonstrate accountability. Only when institutions fail to hold officers responsible for questionable use-of-force incidents might they respond. This is often after police public relations machines—and a compliant media apparatus—works to divide the public reading of the events. Perhaps because of the absence of video of the killing of Michael Brown, the people responded immediately. A critical factor in the growth of the movement that began in Ferguson is momentum.

Those more trusting of state institutions to behave accountably might presume that a remaining benefit of increasing camera presence to record police is that videos might be used to implicate officers through formal proceedings. As Robinson presumed, perhaps Darren Wilson would have been indicted if the incident was captured on video. However, video is even more likely to favor officers’ accounts by investigators, district attorneys, and jurors than audiences of social media and broadcast news. We have many more cases of video aiding the exoneration of officers in court cases than the contrary.

But all this misses the more crucial issue: police is an institution designed to use of violence to produce and defend a capitalist order. In the U.S., the institution was created to administer the institution of slavery and to prevent Black insurrection. Ever since, its primary function is to police the color line. Police violence is, and has always been, a problem of the state and is therefore a political problem.

While exhibition may play a role in the mobilization of discourses, images, and people to politically challenge the police institution and the state in response to a latest incident in centuries of history of police violence—especially against people of color and those indigenous to the continent—, it need not play one. If police violence is not a problem because of its invisibility, making it visible is not the fix. The turn to cameras and state bureaucracies in response to the killing of Michael Brown (or the prior or next victim of police) is either inspired by an apolitical and ahistorical understanding of police, or it is an act of desperation from publics not yet committed to the political work that needs done to challenge police violence.