This paper explores the rapid deployment of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) and the subsequent push for the integration of biometric technologies (i.e., facial recognition) into these devices. To understand the political dangers of these technologies, I outline the concept of “making the body electric” to provide a critical language for cultural practices of identifying, augmenting, and fixing the body through technological means. Further, I argue how these practices reinforce normative understandings of the body and its political functionality, specifically with BWCs and facial recognition. I then analyze the rise of BWCs in a cultural moment of high-profile police violence against unarmed people of color in the United States. In addition to examining the ethics of BWCs, I examine the politics of facial recognition and the dangers that this form of biometric surveillance pose for marginalized groups, arguing against the interface of these two technologies. The pairing of BWCs with facial recognition presentsa number of sociopolitical dangers that reinforce the privilege of perspective granted to police in visual understandings of law enforcement activity. It is the goal of this paper to advance critical discussion of BWCs and biometric surveillance as mechanisms for leveraging political power and racial marginalization.
On December 15, 2017,an Austin Police Department (APD) officer opened fire on a stabbing suspect outside of a Central Austin apartment complex. The entire incident was recorded by the officer’s body-worn camera (BWC). Two days later, in an unrelated incident, another APD officer fired at a suspect who, while walking toward the officer, refused to drop a knife. This event was also recorded by the officer’s BWC. Almost immediately, APD began analyzing the BWC footage in order to garner an “objective” viewpoint. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said that “it was fortunate that our officers that were involved had the body-worn camera because they really did provide a view that we would not have had otherwise,” because prior to the deployment of BWCs in Austin, Texas, he would have had to “just try to put together the best assessment of what had happened” (Wilson 2017).
BWCs have become the technological norm for police departments across the United States, employed with the goal of obtaining a similar third-party perspective as in the incidents in Austin (Sousa, Miethe, and Sakiyama 2015). Police BWCs emerged amid a cultural panic over police violence towards people of color (largely unarmed black people), promising to reduce police misconduct and foster transparency. Yet the growth of interest in these devices has been met with worry regarding their privacy implications as well as overly optimistic hopes that they will reduce police misconduct and improve officer-community relations (Nielsen 2016; Phillips 2016; Thomas 2017; Fan 2018). Accompanying this are evolving efforts to integrate biometric technologies, such as facial recognition software, into existing BWC practices (Harwell 2018; van Schelle 2018). Beyond the legal concerns about these advancements are the normative concerns about using the body as the target of policing. If we consider the history of the physical body as a site of domination for marginalized groups, then practices of making these bodies more visible becomes all the more perilous. The central danger becomes the potential for this new model of policing to (re)define which people’s bodies are codified as authorized and unauthorized in terms of criminality. If the proposed duty of police is to investigate, solve, and prevent crime, then the target of policing practice is the “criminal” as defined by their socio-legal transgression(s). Policing becomes more dangerous when individuals are broken down and reinterpreted in terms of the information provided by their body, instead of as agential social beings.
The first section of this article lays out the guiding theoretical framework of “making the body electric” to describe cultural practices of entangling technology with the body. Drawing upon ideas from Simone Browne(2010, 2015), Bryan Pfaffenberger(1992), and Michel Foucault(1975, 1976, 1978), I propose this theory to address the various ways that connecting the physical body with technology contorts social power, particularly around race. The second section of this article describes the development and employment of BWC devices and the subsequent push for integration of biometric capabilities. This section reviews the major literature on the devices’ ability to decrease police misconduct, foster department transparency, and arouse public support for their use.In the third section,I build my analysis of the sociopolitical consequences of BWC and biometric technologies, with special attention toward facial recognition analysis, usingthe lens of making the body electric. This paper merges empirical and theoretical work on BWCs with emerging conceptual, discursive, and technical work on facial recognition to outline the dangers of what may occur if these technologies collide