In response to concerns about being recorded (and subsequently criticized), police officers have employed various kinds of counter-surveillance tactics. Two stand out: neutralization strategies and camera-friendly strategies.
Neutralization strategies involve shutting down or censoring cameras. Police officers will, for example, confiscate or destroy cameras, they might try to intimidate those who try to record them, and in some cases, police might arrest ‘copwatchers’ (Wall and Linnemann, 2014). Though neutralization tactics are still used, they are growing less useful. The police are under too much surveillance to expect that they will be able to escape or neutralize all the cameras monitoring them: Officers are monitored by surveillance cameras, cameras on or in their vehicles (dashboard cameras, in-car video systems), wearable devices like body cameras, and they are monitored by the smartphones and mobile cameras of social activists and bystanders. Very few people are subject to so much camera surveillance.
My research suggests that the police are well aware of the flaws in neutralization tactics, and that they may be adopting a secondary technique for decreasing the risks associated with being surveilled. I call these tactics camera-friendly policing.
Camera-friendly policing involves a shift in focus away from cameras and towards officers’ bodies. Rather than trying to prevent themselves from being recording, police officers forgo all efforts to disable cameras and begin to adjust their self or what Erving Goffman (1959) called the presentation of self, to make footage appear as favourable as possible. Most camera-friendly tactics involve verbally clarifying police actions so that officers can influence how video recordings are interpreted.
Take a situation where an officer engages a criminal who is to be placed under arrest. For the sake of argument, imagine that the criminal resists arrest. The officer yells, “stop resisting” but the criminal ignores her command and punches at the officer. At this point the officer decides that she has no option expect to use her baton to strike the criminal. Imagine that a citizen with smartphone, who witnesses the scene from some distance, sprints towards the officer and begins recording the scene. The video will show an officer violently striking the criminal with a baton and could be misinterpreted as police brutality. Recognizing this, the officer decides that she will continuously yell, “stop resisting arrest!” loud enough so that it will be picked up in the video recording. In doing so, the officer becomes a performer and a video producer, reshaping the meaning of the videographer’s recording by inserting commentary that rationalizes any violent actions. Accordingly the video becomes a text demonstrating the professionalism and rationality of the officer’s actions rather than something that could be used to accuse her of police brutality. This is camera-friendly policing at its most basic.
These are powerful counter-surveillance strategies given the malleability of images. Despite a commonly held belief which imagines camera footage as a ‘real’ and ‘objective’ record (hence the old adage “the camera never lies”), video images are subject to editing and interpretation, and their meaning is therefore subject to negotiation. The verbal strategies described here allow police officers to participate in this negotiation, and perhaps sway the meaning of a video in such a way that serves their interests.
As researchers try to understand the on-the-ground affects of cameras for police officers, it is important to consider how police officers might adjust their behaviour with a mind on how they appear on camera. It is particularly important to ask if these behavioural changes are in fact signs of improving police behaviour or, rather, if the police are simply learning how to ‘look good’ on camera. If the latter is true, perhaps camera-friendly policing is only a way for officers to code/conceal problems that social activists hope to expose with their cameras. There is already evidence for this as researchers have shown that police have become adept at coding and concealing their racial biases (what critical race scholars call “hidden racism”). Perhaps camera-friendly policing represents policing’s growing ability to ‘hide in plain sight’?