Watching police violence : negotiating the politics of visibility

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Brucato, Ben
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Science and technology studies
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Police violence has been fundamental to the social order in modern and postmodern liberal-democracies, and yet until recently its performance was rarely visible to spectators. This dissertation analyzes discourses about visible police violence in the United States in order to explain ways that this visibility is politically negotiated. This research primarily attends to the advocacy for or the actual use of video documentation to promote the political power of those populations most intensively surveilled and aggressively policed. The research combines the situational analysis of Adele Clarke (2005) with the partisan policy analysis of Charles Lindblom (1986). Given that there is no general orientation to police, a partisan position must be at least provisionally adopted. This study uses a dispositional orientation to data collection, analysis, and reporting that favors the policed and their advocates. The analysis attends to discourses that purport to explain or express the expectations of the new visibility of police. Most often, these discourses reference ubiquitous surveillance, civilian monitoring of police with cellphone cameras, and the adoption of on-officer wearable cameras. Key is what Eve Sedgwick (2002) calls efficacy, especially its relation to action and knowledge. Efficacy is treated in its therapeutic sense: signifying an effective remedy. The dissertation describes the various ways that key actors account for—or fail to—the efficacy of watching. The study investigates the grounding for anticipations of the effectual force of watching police violence, and notes when expectations ground categorical presumption of the availability and use of this effectual force. The utility of extant and future exhibition is evaluated both in terms of observed outcomes and speculations grounded in theory and history. What sustains the presumptions of the effectual force of watching police violence? To better understand the proliferation of videos documenting police violence alongside a police institution that demonstrates considerable resilience, the dissertation explores the themes of transparency, accountability, and objectivity in discourses used among advocates for police visibility. The analysis establishes the salience of these discourses, historicizes them, and subjects them to critique. The critiques uncover some reasons for why exhibition has failed to produce changes many relevant publics have anticipated and why holding to these expectations may be unwarranted. The dissertation reports on media and sociotechnical practices that have documented police violence over the past century. Cop watching and police accountability activism is a primary source of discourse informing the analysis in this study. By comparing different groups, competing and common ideas are identified and critiqued. Members of these groups construct an ideal model of the citizen as a sousveiller, establishing a normative imperative to record, and encouraging a default mode of action in the presence of police violence. The analysis compares expectations of visibility expressed by members of these groups with the treatment of accountability in the development, marketing, and early adoption of on-officer wearable cameras. In consideration of the dominant theme of accountability and frequent reference to it being predicated on visibility, the dissertation evaluates the expectation that video documentation will promote political transparency. The ideal of transparency is historicized. The priority of vision, its importance for knowledge, and the relationship between knowledge and politics is subjected to critique on theoretical and practical grounds. Finally, since some cop watchers and other advocates for the policed claim that policing is a racialized form of structural violence, the research took this claim seriously in order to historicize the institution that has become more visible. This dissertation contributes to a growing body of literature that theoretically and empirically explores ways that visibility is transforming the police institution and its relationship with various publics. More importantly, it performs a partisan situational analysis that provides normative and prescriptive conclusions for the policed and their advocates. Identifying in struggles to produce the mediated visibility of police violence those limitations likely to persist, the conclusion explores some practical and political methods to reach beyond spectatorship and documentation, particularly for those who witness police violence.
2015 August
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
August 2015
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
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