Visibility Is a Trap: Body Cameras and the Panopticon of Police Power

Law and Order Democracy




One of the responses to the recent grand jury non-indictment in the death of Michael Brown was a call to equip police officers with cameras, the idea being that somehow this “third eye” will allow us to “see” the truth in a more objective way. If only we had a camera, we would know better what happened between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown on that street. Witness accounts made by the human eye are not reliable, so we need a machine eye that is by its very nature disinterested and objective.


The discussions of justice become not about systems and institutions of power, but conversations about vision, whether it is legal to film the police, whether or not it is a violation of our rights to have the police film us. If we can just police the police, watch the watchers, perhaps the asymmetry of power would be balanced or negated, and justice will somehow become actual.


In his famous work Discipline and Punish (whose title is more literally translated as “Surveillance and Punishment”), philosopher Michel Foucault writes:


The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon…—to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide—it preserves the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness…Visibility is a trap.


This is from a well-known section titled “Panopticism” where Foucault uses 17th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” as a way to understand modern power, a power based primarily on surveillance, fragmentation, and management of bodies (biopower). A central tower where the observer could see but not be seen, the Panopticon was Bentham’s model of the perfect prison, one that exerted absolute discipline on the incarcerated through a totalizing vision and complete information. It was the “perfection” of punishment, which is to say, the perfection of managing and controlling bodies, not through the brutality of public torture, but through the psychology and efficiency of surveillance.


The gaze is alert everywhere... Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked—it is the great review of the living and the dead…like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.


For Foucault, the Panopticon became a symbol for “disciplinary society,” one that “called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power.” Power did not operate (only) by repression and overt force, but through these more subtle (and now, not so subtle) fragmentations that tear apart and recreate subjectivity and personhood, shape this “collection of separated individualities,” atomize and vaporize, a power that makes those “elementary particles” more manageable and docile. Disciplined bodies become “the object of information, never a subject of communication.”


On December 1, amid the varying levels of response to the non-indictment of Officer Wilson, President Obama requested $236 million to invest in body cameras and police training to restore trust in policing (never mind that “trust” involves not having to watch someone at every moment). Two days later, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, an event that was caught on camera. Many, both liberal and conservative, clearly “saw” an injustice and an abuse of power. Others saw Garner resist which, in their minds, justified the response by Pantaleo. Immediately, the “solution” of increasing cameras became problematic, if not farcical—even the visual evidence was not enough to indict, belying an underlying systemic problem that shapes the way we “see.”


But it is not simply a question of interpretation and how one “judges” the events, something that inevitably occurs in and through the double-interpretation of perception via any medium (text, photograph, video). Such a solution is a fetishization of sight that evades the underlying problem, a problem that not only has to do with race and class, but also the very structures, technologies, and deployments of power in modern society.


For Foucault, the Panoptic gaze moves out of the walls of the prison and is “very soon taken over by the police apparatus,” creating a technology of “generalized surveillance.” Police become concerned with “the dust of events, actions, behavior, opinions… “those things of every moment,” those “unimportant things… ideally [reaching] the most elementary particle.” In other words, “everything that happens.” This is “broken windows policing”: by disciplining the small things—vandalism, toll-jumpers, squeegee guys, and those who evade taxes by selling “loosie” cigarettes—the large crimes are prevented, so the theory goes. “Broken windows” was a technique implemented by William Bratton in New York City while Rudolph Giuliani was mayor (1994-2001), under the euphemisms “quality of life” and “zero tolerance.” This policy laid the foundation for “stop and frisk,” a practice that was central to the campaign platform of the current mayor Bill de Blasio (something he promised to stop, but then appointed as police chief the very architect of this policy, William Bratton).


In New York City, the Panopticon surrounds us. Most New Yorkers are familiar with the MTAs post 9-11 ad campaign, “If You See Something, Say Something.” Under the auspices of security, the campaign is an attempt to turn eight million pairs of eyes into organs of surveillance. We do not yet have cameras in every subway car or on every corner, so we have to deploy the bodies of the citizenry itself to be the mobile Panopticon.


Lower-income neighborhood corners are familiar with the NYPD’s Terrahawk Mobile Utility Surveillance Towers (M.U.S.T., an acronym worthy of Orwell), those large retractable towers which the Texas-based manufacturer describes as consisting of:


[an] observation capsule [that] provides a perfect platform for a variety of surveillance devices such as recordable digital and/or thermal imaging camera systems, communication and radio equipment, and a workstation for computing. The capsule easily accommodates two persons with an elevated line of sight which facilitates improved crowd control management and acts as a ground force multiplier.


M.U.S.T. is a more obvious version of the Panopticon (soon to be replaced by remote control drones), but one that is experienced differently by different bodies. For middle-class whites, it is a source of safety and security. For poor persons of color, the eyes behind the tinted glass are not only watching them, but recording them, encoding them, tracking them.


Add to the eyes of the police and the citizenry the doubling of eyes through the constant recording via the photograph and video of our smart phones, those little Panopticons we carry in our pocket. We turn these cameras on ourselves and others, voluntarily participating in the economy of gazes, uploading them so that others can see, surveil, judge. “The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied,” observes Foucault. ”"It has become transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.”


From the prison to the police to the citizenry, it is the “perfection” of discipline where the lines between the prison and the streets, ostensibly public and free, become blurred. The Panopticon became “a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere,” where “the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.” We become the prisoners and the wardens at the same time, locking ourselves in “a cruel, ingenious cage.”


While Foucault provides a compelling analysis of the relationship between surveillance, discipline, and the deployment of power, what he’s articulating is something that is experienced daily by people of color in the United States, namely the experience of constantly being watched while moving through public space, of being always marked by skin color, manner of dress, or physical comportment, what W.E.B. Dubois calls a “double-consciousness.” It is the experience of not only being a “suspicious” body, but of being disciplined, controlled, and already indicted in and through those surveilling eyes. It is the experience of being incarcerated, unfree.


“The Panopticon… must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.” Yes, we all live in a Panopticon. But it is not only the Panopticon of Bentham or Orwell, a central tower from which the gaze operates. Rather, it is the Panopticon of Kafka, one that is everywhere precisely because there is no centralization, where we, the surveilled, are also the surveillers, we the watched are also the watchers. “Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants.”


Such surveillance has become normalized and distributed, into our own pockets, onto our own bodies. It is not a great leap to imagine the police outfitted with, alongside their pepper spray and pistols, glasses that record everything, or perhaps even cameras embedded into their own eyes. Is this the image of justice and freedom? Will this protect the citizenry and help to reduce racism, classism, and abuses of power?


A body camera modeled by a police officer.  The Mantle
A body camera modeled by a police officer. Credit: ACLU


Perhaps surveillance will help both police officers and citizens feel more secure because they feel they will be accountable to some disinterested third party or to the “court” of public judgment. There is some recent evidence that use of force declines when body cameras are present. But, as Foucault emphasizes, surveillance is yet another refinement of power and control, a technology, however well-intentioned, that continues to atomize our bodies in time and space as a way of examining, fragmenting, and controlling those bodies. There is no justice “behind” the way we realize it through our technologies and systems. These cameras, then, do not become the tool of justice, but a catalyst for surveillance, discipline, and punishment. The camera replaces the gun—the violence and control over a body is no less totalizing.


“Broken windows” leads to broken windows. The “riot” is, at some level, an expression of exclusion from property and meaningful participation and recognition in the life of society. Many see it as a breaking in, but it is in fact a breaking out of the “dungeon” of surveillance and control perpetuated by modern biopower. This is something that bodies that are not under siege do not and perhaps cannot understand. From the safety of their own “Panopticon,” behind the glass of the television, in the comfort of their living room chair, they watch these “animals” and only see “thugs,” “hoodlums,” “criminals,” a “prison riot,” not to mention other choice labels by which they “see” these bodies.


This is precisely the point: poor communities where most of the bodies are brown experience “public” and “free” space as surveilled space, controlled space, a space where their bodies are not their own but perpetually disciplined, fragmented, and examined by the various modes of power. Are more eyes the answer?


Visibility is a trap.

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Police, Surveillance, Michel Foucault, New York City, Prisons, Violence, Technology, Crime, Politics, Criminality, Philosophy