Looking through the lens
It took nearly two days for the footage of LAPD officers beating Rodney King to reach the public. Today, it would take a matter of seconds.
Since that explosive moment in U.S. history, the breakneck evolution of technology has amplified and reframed the conversation around race, law enforcement, violence and civil rights, leading to unprecedented revolutions in proof and police regulation. The impacts of this camera cultural revolution and how to better protect civil rights and liberties are the subject of the new book, “Camera Power: Proof, Policing, and Audiovisual Big Data”, by Mary D. Fan, UW Jack R. MacDonald Endowed Chair in Law.
“The balance of power and control over proof and the ability to tell your side of the story is changing dramatically,” Fan said. “We have a growing deluge of video evidence and data generated by cell phone and police-worn body cameras that can be used to prevent injuries and deaths in police encounters and better protect civil rights and liberties.
The challenge is to cultivate the benefits of police regulation by radical transparency while reducing the potentially severe privacy costs.
The book took nearly two years of reporting and research in over 200 jurisdictions. Fan draws on more than 100 interviews with police leaders and officers, copwatchers, community members, civil rights and civil liberties experts, industry leaders and technologists.
The result is a first-of-its-kind exploration of the policy questions raised by the evolution of technology in regard to policing.
“So many times when I’d conduct an interview, it would snowball,” Fan said. “There would be so many other leads and areas to explore, I’d be inspired to add another section.”
The subject of the public’s relationship with police is broad and complex. Still, the book manages to home in on how that relationship is being shaped by the ubiquitous spread of two different camera lenses — the one in your pocket, and the one worn on a police officer’s chest.
Violence between police and community members isn’t anything new, Fan said, but public awareness has never been higher.
More than 81% of adults in the United States report owning a smartphone, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center. The vast majority of Americans are equipped with the ability to capture events in real time and share with the world across web platforms instantly.
“These days, a citizen protester can post a video on YouTube and have it go viral even before the incident is over,” Fan said. “The media, police departments and courts often are racing behind trying to catch up.”
Following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, police departments across the country sped to adopt police-worn body cameras in response to scathing public outcry.
Fan points out that the spread of smartphones, social media and body cameras have dovetailed with each another, leading to an explosion of available audiovisual data for any given situation.
In “Camera Power,” Fan discusses how these big data analytics influence civil rights protections and potentially volatile police encounters. She also dives into the side effects of big data on privacy.
“Police regulation by radical transparency carries potentially severe privacy costs,” Fan said. “Police see us oftentimes in our worst moments — when we are drunk, when we are crying, when we are traumatized or when we have been assaulted. The price of calling the police for help should not be the risk of being posted online.”
The challenge is to cultivate the benefits of police regulation by radical transparency while reducing the potentially severe privacy costs.Mary D. Fan
Fan’s book surfaces today’s biggest debates around privacy, public disclosure, proof and police regulation, focusing on complex questions and what citizens, communities, policymakers and law enforcement can do to answer them. But she also offers a vision of great potential and the role technology can play in shaping a brighter future.
Recording technology has come a long way since the grainy Sony camcorder recording that captured the world’s attention in 1991. Twenty-eight years later, America is still fighting the same battles with itself — there just happen to be a lot more cameras on the battlefield.
Read “Camera Power: Proof, Policing, Privacy, and Audiovisual Big Data” by Mary D. Fan.