Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

[Cross-posted from the WITNESS Hub Blog.]

Here’s a Guardian video (and news story) from a couple of weeks ago which offers some useful insights for those working to document and expose police brutality and misconduct worldwide, and to those within police forces charged with investigating such misconduct and developing policies for transparency and accountability.

Two female protesters [protesting against the Kingsnorth power station in the UK] who challenged police officers for not displaying their badge numbers were bundled to the ground, arrested and held in prison for four days, according to an official complaint lodged today.

The incident was caught on camera, and footage shows officers standing on the women’s feet and applying pressure to their necks immediately after the women attempted to photograph a fellow officer who had refused to give his badge number.

The images are likely to fuel concern over the policing of protests, which is already subject to a review by the national police inspectorate and two parliamentary inquiries after the G20 demonstrations and the death of Ian Tomlinson.

[…] Fit Watch activists are opposed to police forward intelligence teams (Fits), the mobile surveillance units that monitor campaigners at demonstrations and meetings. Campaigners affiliated to the group film surveillance officers in action and upload their details to a website.

The footage that exposed the harsh arrest techniques, the rapid and unexplained escalation of the use of force, and this police team’s awareness of FIT Watch (whom you can follow on Twitter), was filmed by the police unit’s own surveillance cameras.  At one point in the video, the filming officer trains his camera on colleagues arresting Emily Apple, one of the FIT Watch team, and lets them know that the “camera [is] recording” (1’34 into the video) – although they don’t seem to change their approach to the arrest.  What isn’t quite clear is whether this incident would have come to light without the intervention of The Guardian (via Freedom of Information requests?)  Is this kind of video-based accountability is already structured into the operations of police FITs (if anyone can shed light on this, please do)?

Either way, as police forces in the UK and USA increase their use of head-mounted and gun-mounted recording technologies and evidentiary video databases to document incidents during frontline policing (building on previous pilot schemes), the opportunities to scrutinise policing tactics and to force this kind of transparency will be ever more numerous.  Activists too will need to continue to evolve their own documentation strategies and equipment in response, including continued experimentation with live mobile video…  (In case you’re interested, here are a couple of police-focused sites that discuss the issues and challenges of video documentation in the context of police work: Force Science News and Spartan Cops – the latter site of of particular interest for those interested in understanding the use of force in police tactics more generally.)

Police wearing life-cams sounds very much like what Professor John Keane called “communicative abundance” – and this is a key part of his newest idea, “monitory democracy“.  According to Keane, it’s an emerging type of democracy that supplements and complicates representative democracy – in “monitory democracy”, all kinds of decision-makers (governmental, inter-governmental, non-governmental, business, military, etc) are subjected to scrutiny in multiple directions, enabled in part by that “communicative abundance” – including mass media, social media, and personal media.  You can read Keane’s own description of the idea here (pdf) or look at an illustration of the idea.  I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few weeks about this idea, both how it relates to the work that we do here at WITNESS, and more broadly how it has implications for those engaged in video activism and advocacy and in governance – I’ll discuss this in a later post.

Today I just wanted to look at the above example of how interlocking forms of scrutiny build concretely towards the “monitory democracy” John Keane is talking about.  Whether we’re looking at activists working to expose police corruption in Morocco, the Israeli authorities turning to B’Tselem for video evidence of military misconduct, or the UK police asking the public to contribute their personal media to the Ian Tomlinson/G20 investigation, we could begin to see it as part of “monitory democracy”.  John Keane makes India his key example for the evolution of “monitory democracy”, but one has to wonder what changes might occur if video systems to monitor police conduct were widely deployed in the cities of India – or perhaps the favelas of Brazil, where thousands of fatal shootings by police over the past few years have been ascribed to “resisting arrest”.  I’ll return to look specifically at these ideas soon – but feel free to take them on yourselves!

(Thanks to Francesca Silvani for introducing me to the work of John Keane and its links with video activism and advocacy. Incidentally, Keane gave a lecture on “monitory democracy” in Spain in February – worth watching.)


forgot to mention that Keane specifically links the rise of this new kind of democracy with new developments since 1948, and crucially to human rights. Listen to him in conversation with the BBC’s Andrew Marr here on that very topic:


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