In the United States, violent crime continues to drop. Murders fell by 4.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and are now at the lowest in around 40 years. According to the F.B.I. crime report, the U.S. had an estimated 1.16 million violent crimes last year, the lowest since 1.09 million were recorded in 1978. Adjusting for population, there were 4.3 violent crimes per year, per 1000 population last year, compared with 4.9 in 1978.
As Reuters reports, all kinds of violent crimes were lower in 2013, with murder and non-negligent manslaughter at the lowest figure since 1968. Rapes fell by 6.3 percent and robbery is down by 2.8 percent.
In Reuters’ coverage, James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said the United States having the highest rate of imprisonment in the world contributed to the decline, but he importantly cited ‘the increased use of security cameras and the pervasive use of phones to take videos. “It’s hard for criminals to do anything without being caught on video,” Fox said.’
In another recently released report by the F.B.I., the Uniform Crime Report, they revealed 461 felony suspects were fatally shot by police last year, the most in two decades. This report is routinely criticized for unreporting civilians killed by police. Pig State News‘ page on Facebook, Killed By Police, tracks police killings, showing over 1700 unique killings reported in press since May 1, 2013 and over 750 so far in 2014.
This is particularly troubling because the F.B.I. Killed & Assaulted report shows that police officers are safer than ever, with assaults and deaths by police at the hands of civilians continuing to plummet. Less than 20% of attacks on officers involve any weapons, and yet officers are outfitted with ever-more weaponry, including weapons and equipment designed for battle applications by militaries. For the last five years, the number of sworn police officers relative to total population has declined by about a percentage point each year, after trending upward the prior decade.
Fox’s commentary requires a degree of symmetry: while civilians are more routinely subjected to surveillance, resulting in surging prison populations and some self-regulation in public spaces, police too are less often able to escape being recorded by cameras. That means the escalating violence by police against civilians is also being documented by private security cameras, dashboard-mounted cameras in police cruisers, municipal CCTV systems, and the recording devices carried by civilians.
Together, we see that police are safer than ever, civilians are less violent than ever, and violent force and imprisonment is more often to be expected by civilians—all under the watchful eye of cameras. These cameras generate media that are more often released or leaked to publics, and then are circulated on social media. Audiences can more simply access this content, as it isn’t as subject to filtering by the political economic power of corporate and governmental gatekeepers.
Yet, what is the standard refrain—seemingly from every quarter—in the wake of the newest controversy involving excessive force by a police officer? ‘More cameras are the answer.’
When video is involved in an incident of police accountability, video gets all the credit. When it fails to produce this result, it gets none of the blame.
Recently, a Saratoga Springs, New York, area sheriff deputy slapped a civilian and illegally searched his vehicle after the man clearly stated he did not consent. The man recorded the situation on his cell phone, and the video spread virally on various social media. The deputy was suspended and later charged with a crime for this. It seems reasonable to credit the video with this outcome. But we must then explain why it is so rare for police agents to be suspended, and even less so to be criminally charged, after their misconduct is video recorded.
When video is involved in an incident of police accountability, video gets all the credit. When it fails to produce this result, it gets none of the blame. Given the overall trends discussed above, we have reasons to be skeptical of the standard refrain. Are more cameras really the answer?
Nationwide—and internationally—police agencies are eagerly adopting on-officer wearable cameras. While manufacturers’ marketing materials and adopting police agencies’ spokespersons have political reasons to advance a rhetorical framing of these devices as producing accountability symmetrically, those who are more concerned to advocate for publics, generally, or the victims of police violence, specifically, ought to be more skeptical.
Today, civilians are less violent, police officers are more violent, and this is all happening under the watchful eye of cameras and audiences worldwide. Cameras might be a useful tool for political actors to challenge police power, but cameras alone are not the answer.
Since surveillance is known to contribute to increased incarceration, and since incarceration harms chronically disadvantaged communities most, advocacy for more surveillance based on misplaced faith in its symmetry is an untenable position.We already know that ‘more cameras’ can exist in the presence of more police violence. Instead, we ought to carefully examine the circumstances under which cameras do reliably enhance public control over police practices and institutions. Armed with sufficient knowledge of this, we might only then advocate for fostering such conditions.
A previous version of this post appeared on Ben Brucato’s blog, at www.benbrucato.com.