Watching the detectives: Why are citizens filming the police?

Social media has become part and parcel of modern policing. However, is not only law enforcement agencies that have been adopting it in the realm of public security. Citizens are using social media for a myriad of purposes. As smartphones have become a 21st century Swiss army knives in everyone’s pockets, citizens are recording all kinds of daily events in text, images or (live) video and publishing this through social media via the same device. This can both enhance and challenge public security. One particularly ambiguous phenomenon is that of citizens filming the actions of police officers. Some of the research carried out in MEDI@4SEC has given new insights into why citizens are doing this and why police responses to it should not be an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The practice of citizens filming the police is not new. ‘Cop watching’ has existed since the 1960s in the US. It is a form of political activism which uses filming as a means to expose police misconduct. By filming and publishing these actions, activists aim to influence the behaviour of police officers by holding them accountable. Activists claim that mainstream media have pro-police biases that they wish to counter. The concept of ‘sousveillance’ provides a more theoretical explanation of cop watching. Surveillance is the French word for oversight and refers to those in power who are observing others. Police surveillance has become more pervasive in this digital age, with for example predictive policing technologies. Sousveillence then means undersight and references the behaviour of those not in power (citizens) observing those in power. It describes intentional, tactical uses, of surveillance technologies including smartphones and social media to challenge power asymmetries. Sousveillance turns the social media spotlight towards the police instead of the other way around.

In the US, cop watching has exposed unwarranted police violence in various cases, particularly towards ethnic minorities. Well-known cases involving this include the death of Eric Garner and the shooting of Michael Brown, the second of these cases leading up to the Ferguson unrest in 2014. In many cases, cop watching has resulted in police officers being reassigned, suspended, fired, sued, and in some cases, criminally prosecuted. With the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, this behaviour has become more widespread and there are even specialized smartphone apps which have been developed for cop watching.

Today, filming the police and publishing this material via social media has more diverse purposes besides political activism. It is, for example, used for personal interests when citizens themselves are in encounter with the police and start to film the situation as evidence which can be used to counterbalance police authority. Also more mundane examples of filming the police have emerged, e.g. as form of citizen journalism. Recording and publishing the work of police officers is sometimes a spontaneous action of ordinary citizens, caught up in extraordinary events. The thrill of the action or public recognition as an amateur journalist compels citizens to adopt the role of a news reporter. News organizations also actively encourage citizens to submit their mobile news material, sometimes even with financial incentives. In 2016 in the Netherlands, a group of ‘treitervloggers’ from Zaandam caused public outrage and triggered political debate when they harassed local police and challenged police authority as a way to strengthen their social media personas.

The increase in the number and diversity of instances in which citizens are filming the police has raised an interesting debate highlighting an ethical and legal struggle over this phenomenon. On the one hand, cop watching efforts have been praised for exposing and preventing police misconduct. On the other hand, this behaviour is blamed for hindering execution of police tasks and infringing upon the privacy of police officers. In particular, law enforcement agencies fear that the ‘Youtube effect’ may result in a risk-averse style of policing and undermine rather than enhance public security. To date, the positive effects of the social media spotlight outweigh the negative effects in open and free societies, but there is discussion under what conditions filming and publishing is acceptable and what are appropriate responses by law enforcement. MEDIA4SEC is continuing to collate examples of best practices and is engaging in ongoing discussion on this quickly developing phenomenon in the project workshops and through our LinkedIn group.

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Rianne Dekker

University of Utrecht

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