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The Policing View: Body Worn Cameras, Surveillance and the Question of Police Accountability

Principal Researcher: Amanda Glasbeek (Associate Professor, Department of Social Science, York University)
Researchers: Mariful Alam (PhD Candidate, Socio-Legal Studies, York University); Katrin Roots (PhD Candidate, Socio-Legal Studies, York University)

In light of increasing accusations of police misconduct, often documented and broadcast by citizen by-standers, police forces across North America have begun experimenting with body-worn camera technology by front line officers. The expressed purpose of these cameras is to monitor police interactions with citizens, thereby enhancing police accountability. These cameras have been met with widespread optimism. In particular, a much-cited study conducted by the Rialto, California police department found that the use of cameras reduced police use of force by 59% and citizens’ complaints against police by 87.5% . Yet, to date, no independent academic study on the sociolegal implications of this surveillant policing technology has been published. Given that accountability is a fundamental tenet of policing in a democratic society, such a study is urgently needed.

Located in the interdisciplinary field of surveillance studies, The Policing View is a three-year project, the core objective of which is to offer independent academic inquiry into an area of police, surveillance, and public accountability that has, heretofore, been monopolized by internal police research. This central objective will be addressed through two sets of inter-related empirical and theoretical questions. First, I examine the institutional interests that animate the implementation of these cameras. Despite the hopefulness that characterizes this initiative, as a new technology, body-worn cameras are beset by practical questions that condition their potential. Because they are still in the experimental stage, this is a particularly opportune time to explore how both logistical and socially contested questions raised by cameras – including issues related to privacy, police surveillance, and civilian oversight of images - are being actively negotiated to make this technology ‘work’. Second, and subsequently, the project examines a tension that structures the logic of this emergent policing practice: while body-worn cameras are justified as enhancing police accountability, they do so by returning control over images of police work to the police instead of through the work of bystanders. The Policing View is, therefore, further animated by the questions: what does it mean for the police to generate images of their own work, and do such practices work with, or in opposition to, the corresponding promise of increased police accountability?

To address these questions, two complementary methods will be used. First, document and legal case analysis will help determine the potential and limits of camera images produced through the bodies of police officers. Second, approximately 60 semi-structured interviews will be conducted with police and privacy and civil liberties advocates in jurisdictions across Canada, including Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Thunder Bay. Given the rapid rise of this technology, and the limited academic research to date, this project is a timely contribution not only to scholars in a variety of disciplines but also to policy and legal advisors, municipal police boards and oversight committees, and a general public that is keenly affected by questions of police surveillance and accountability.

This project has been made possible through a financial contribution from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the associated universities and partners. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of those involved.