Sousveillance: A New Era for Police Accountability


Police are waging a futile war against camera-toting citizens. In several states, you can be arrested for filming police, even in a public place. With cameras growing ever smaller, conflicts are going to arise more and more often. There can only be one outcome. Police are just going to have to get used to it.

One recent incident: “After a horrific shootout on the streets of Miami, Narces Benoit and his girlfriend witnessed the finale: police firing a barrage of rounds into a man’s car. Narces recorded it. The police smashed his phone. But first? He stuck the SD memory card into his mouth and saved the footage.”

And then there’s the story of Emily Good, who stood on her front lawn in Rochester recording police searching a man’s car for drugs (none were found). Police responded that they didn’t feel safe with her behind them…and ordered her to go inside her house. She did not comply, continued filming, and was arrested. Recording police is not illegal in New York, and she made no threatening moves. They declared that she was “anti-police” as a rationale. Watch the video.

Another horrific example. “Woman could get 15 years for recording cops after one of them allegedly assaulted her.”

TransparentSocietyI’ve been writing about this for decades. Some very prescient passages in The Transparent Society, describe exactly this kind of tension, between citizens armed with new tools of vision and accountability, and tens of thousands of cops who – from day to day – see themselves as doing a harsh, difficult and under-appreciated job. Look, I appreciate it. Not only the skill and professionalism that has played a big part in decreased crime rates ion the United States, but also the daily fight that every officer must wage, to maintain that professionalism, under circumstances that might send any of us into uncontrollable rage. We all carry hormonal and neuronal and psychological baggage from the million year Stone Age… and ten thousand years of urban life in which the king’s thugs patrolled the streets without having to think twice before slinging their truncheons at the heads of punks.

Nevertheless, we’re asking more of you, now. It is our civilization — and the rules have changed.

In fact, the glass is far more than half full. The men and women in most modern American police forces are adapting to the the new standards of behavior. Clenching their teeth and calling “sir” even the most outrageously abusive drunks. I am proud to know some of these folks. Moreover, I can understand why they might worry about that one time they lose their cool, coming back to haunt them, because some putz on the nearby street corner decides to record that momentary lapse on a cell cam.

I sympathize. I do. Yet I refuse to accept the arguments that good cops need “privacy” to perform their jobs. It doesn’t wash. It is a ridiculous argument, aimed at achieving convenience and evasion of accountability, and we will not allow it. Technology will not allow it.

Technology will not allow it. For — according to “Brin’s corollary to Moore’s Law” — the cameras will get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year. So figures of authority might as well get used to it now.

This is the new world. It will be watching — assume it at any given moment. And I promise you this…juries and citizen review boards will bear in mind that we’re all human. When you suffer that inevitable, occasional, not-too-awful over-reaction, there will often be a second chance. We’re human too and we want our cities patrolled. When all of this equilibrates, we will have to make some allowances for good people, caught making a rare mistake.

What’s the alternative? Are you really going to push this “never record us” lunacy? Do you really want the law to deny us the ONLY recourse that a citizen has ever had, against bullying and abuse of power? Really? The only thing that we have on our side?

It is called the Truth. And if you fear it, then we do… not…want you as our hired protector. Please. Get another job. We are changing the rules. And from now on, only adults need apply.


Living lasers?” Way back in 1980, my first novel SUNDIVER proposed that living matter might be made to produce laser emissions. Scientists had already used organic dye as a laser amplification material. It seemed plausible (to me) that life could take the next steps, excitation and cavity reflection. All right, it’s more than just a few steps to creatures with laser-shooting eyes! Still, three decades later, my forecast is coming true. Two Massachusetts scientists report having caused laser activity inside living cells. The photos are amazing.

Want Kids to win the future? Turn them into Makers — and Sci Fi Fans. I attended Maker Faire and gave a keynote, then toured this “Woodstock for nerds” with my son.

Want to hear some good audio sci fi? One of my stories dramatized for a podcast?


Filed under media, politics

6 responses to “Sousveillance: A New Era for Police Accountability

  1. Kathleen Retz

    David, over the past year or so up here in Seattle, we’ve had quite a few cops caught being unprofessional on civilian cameras. The results have been mixed, some cops getting a second chance, several resigning, others attending additional training, another being sued by a high, out of control female teen who was caught throwing her shoe at a cop in a holding room; missing from this footage was the verbal and physical abuse she’d used against the officer before he finally physically subdued her.

    Overall, I’m glad people caught these acts on film. Whenever I see them, I recall the many times I never received a ticket or was treated with respect by the police – even if I was at fault! – simply by holding my tongue and being polite. I know many people think the police should be disciplined when they react to verbal, physical, illogical, or drama-queen abuse in anything but calm, polite professionalism. Frankly, most of the videos I’ve seen lately make me shake my head and wonder why folks think they can be that abusive and no one would get mad!

    That being said, the video showing a cop kicking a man already submissively lying face down on the sidewalk and making derogatory comments (falsely, btw) about his residential status, deserves the outrage our citizens have expressed. Anyone who is not being combative should not be treated in this way! Thank the maker for video cameras!

    I’m all for Reasonable Expectation of Privacy. However, I only reasonably expect that inside my own home and if I’ve closed the blinds. Otherwise, my actions are subject not only to camera surveillance, but scrutiny by passersby as well.

    Interesting blog – and one that seems soooo Seattle right now!

  2. Bill Goodwin

    I had the pleasure of reading “The Cricket on the Hearth” to its author Ray Bradbury yesterday evening. It concerns a married couple whose home is bugged by the government–and deals with the whole “If you’re not doing anything wrong why would you mind?” argument. I was impressed with how powerfully, yet subtly, it conveyed the idea that simply being watched changes EVERYTHING. Ray wrote it in 1950.

  3. There have been a number of incidents where Houston police have tried to arrest people who videotaped them. Interestingly, the Houston police chief has no problem with video surveillance of private citizens in their homes -he even uses the “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, why worry about it” line.

  4. Pingback: Linkschau, die Elfte. | Die datenschutzkritische Spackeria

  5. beoShaffer

    Not on the topic of police, but on the general transparency front:
    A surprisingly in depth article about “shell” cooperations and.

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