Ferguson and the Surveillance State

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So we’re already seeing the first fallout from Ferguson – the Denver Police have requested 800 body cameras.  (Which reminds me, I should email the local cops to ask about their stance on this.)  I suspect more cities will follow suit, to avoid lawsuits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if within five years cameras would be a common thing among police officers.
Which won’t solve the problem entirely, of course.  Abusive police will find ways for the cameras to mysteriously break at the oddest moments.  And the police department owns the footage, which they are not required to release, so if the local constabulary wants to hole up and admit nothing, well, it can.
But what I find fascinating is that Ferguson-inspired liberals may have inadvertently given a push to something liberals hate: the surveillance state.  We don’t want to be like Britain, with cameras everywhere filming us!  We don’t want the government watching over us!
Well, as it turns out, we kinda might.  Only if a cop is watching you, of course.  But you’d be surprised how many of the times you least want to be filmed involve a cop’s potential presence. And I think in the wake of Ferguson’s astonishingly lawless policeman-instigated killing, maybe the safety of having an objective record of who shot who and what happened isn’t a bad thing.
Yet it’s interesting how different pressures can make traditionally-scorned approaches seem more palatable.  If you’d said ten years ago, “The cops will be filming your every movement,” there’d have been a huge outcry.  But when a cop might shoot your ass or beat you, “The cops will be filming your every movement” becomes a positive outcome.
Life is weird.


  1. @kagevortex
    Aug 28, 2014

    I think being attached to cops is the little thing that makes it palatable. Since it’s as much an observer of the officer as other parties. It’s just a bit of sousveillance shifted onto the other party.
    Generally, anyone you find against surveillance will be fairly accepting of sousveillance. And the reason is power dynamic. Someone with power using a tool to further the power against someone with less, not so hot. Someone with less power using a tool to balance things against someone with more, not as objectionable.
    It may be the same action, recording someone with a camera. But the who and why makes a bit of a difference.

  2. Yet Another Laura H
    Aug 28, 2014

    My understanding is that cops often warm up to dashcams FAST, because there’s a world of difference having some drunk person’s behavior at a traffic stop described to one and actually seeing the behavior. The usual cautions about anecdata and YMMV apply, of course.

  3. nora
    Aug 29, 2014

    As a Brit, must caution you on the “cameras everywhere” thing. They aren’t. Where they ARE is in areas where conflict is likely to happen/laws are likely to be broken. In other words: areas where people congregate, like town/city centres, major roads, etc. and yes, sometimes the police wear some kind of camera – again, not routinely, but in areas where there is high risk of conflict. We used to live in a rough part of a city and there, even the Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) can and do wear them – but then, we’d also see armed police officers in our local supermarket, which certainly isn’t routine in the rest of the UK!! Where we’re living now, though, we’d just see police officers with stab vests and probably the telescopic sticks. As for my mother, who lives in an area that sees perhaps 1 crime a year, the only time she sees a police officer is if she comes to visit us or the local bobby is attending the local neighbourhood watch meeting – and there are certainly no cameras where she lives! So, no, we’re not a surveillance society just yet, although there are fears that we’re heading that way, and a lot of people working to prevent it, to make sure that the balance you wrote of (between the cameras acting to protect us, rather than persecute) is achieved. We’re probably not there yet, but at least the UK as a whole is aware of it and working on it.
    Thank you for the post though – its interesting to see how attitudes change – and more so, how these attitudes are being noticed from within American society. It’s more difficult, I think, to notice these kind of longer-term cultural and attitude changes while living in the midst of them. 🙂

  4. Jericka
    Aug 29, 2014

    Most of us are under surveillance already either while we are at work or while we are shopping. Shop clerks and bank tellers are accustomed to being watched. There were cameras in the office that I used to work at for security purposes. The computers that we used were watched, too; they could replay exactly what you did on the computer and match it to a phone call that was also recorded….for quality control purposes, etc.
    Yes, it’s our workplaces usually watching us, and not the government, but, considering the power differential between a worker and the company, what difference does it make for most of us?
    I’m firmly in the camp of watching the police. I think they should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one.

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