Watching the Watchers

Visiting New York this week, where Stop and Frisk is in the news once more.  I’ve never been able to get that into it, since the matter seems pretty straightforward: giving police expanded authority to harass poor minorities leads to police harassment of poor minorities.  Today, a judge agreed with me and ordered a stop to the program as designed, as well as federal oversight to allow the reformation of the program into something that doesn’t systematically violate the rights of everyone it touches.  However, there’s one small toss-off detail that I think is important: the judge also ordered cops in five precincts to begin wearing cameras to record all of their encounters.  This is part of a pilot program which may extend to the entire city.

This is a wonderful idea.  The police, especially the NYPD, are often accused and often guilty of persecuting minorities and generally acting with wanton disregard to the mere concept of civil rights.   Psychological experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment show how normal people put in positions of power often act in downright psycopathic fashion.  Not to mention that the police force can draw many people who aren’t the healthiest; the Onion recently put it best with its article on an “Insecure, Frustrated Bully with Something to Prove Considering Career in Law Enforcement”.  Often police officers feel free to engage in this sort of behavior since there are only two witnesses, an officer and suspect, and they can be confident that their story will be believed.  By making all police-suspect interactions available for later scrutiny, hopefully cameras will not only act as ex post evidence of misconduct, but a powerful prior restraint on misconduct.

I confidently predict that reports of police misconduct in the pilot areas will decrease sharply.  I also wonder if savings on liability insurance and misconduct settlements will cover the cost of the cameras.

It goes to show that the technological Panopticon can actually work for good.  The question of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, or “Who watches the watchmen?” is an old one going back to the Roman poet Juvenal, and reflects that misconduct is likely to spread amongst those with the responsibility to police others.  People have sought to fix this with institutional oversight a hundred different ways in a hundred different places, but nothing has been that effective. However, the availability of cheap cameras and unlimited storage space can actually allow for effective oversight of law enforcement.  See, technology is good for something other than spying on all Americans all the time – spying on some Americans some of the time!

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