Sixteen Shots: The Limits of Smart Tech in Urban Policing

Sixteen Shots The Limit of Smart Tech in Urban Policing



“I understand that the people will be upset and will want to protest when they see the video” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said before the release of footage showing the killing of 17 year old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago Police Officer (Guardian 2015). Emanuel has called for calm and framed the death as an opportunity to build bridges of understanding in a city plagued by racial profiling and police violence. The video was recorded a year ago by an in-car camera installed in a patrol car and clearly shows the youth being shot 16 times despite laying motionless on the road after the first bullet was fired. The Editorial Board of the Chicago Sun-Times says the video shows an officer “shoot down a young man as if he were a deer in the woods” (Chicago Sun-Times 2015).

The killing is astonishing on its own merits, here even more so in light of the fact that it took place in clear view of an in-car camera, ailment technology that has been in place for decades and is well known to the officers it records. The Chicago Editorial Board raises the incredulity of this killing taking place not in secret, not in a hidden location, but in clear and plain sight of other officers: “How is it than any Chicago police officer, right in front of at least eight other officers, would act in this way? Where is the weakness in the department’s training and supervision?” Despite several human and machine witnesses, Officer Van Dyke snuffed the life a youth with little inhibition stopping only when he ran out of bullets. Sixteen shots in total. In-car cameras did not save Laquan McDonald’s life, nor did they alter the behaviour of Officer Van Dyke. Yet the in-car camera was once a holy grail for police departments across the United States looking to ‘build trust’ with citizens in the wake of research showing racial profiling was prolific. That was over twenty years ago.

In the 1990s racial profiling had generated mistrust between police officers and citizens whose crimes were often nothing more than ‘being black while driving’ (Harris 2000). As research data proved the complaints of systemic racism had merit police chiefs and politicians were pressured to do something. Conveniently for businesses in the video recording industry, video recorders were getting smaller and more portable. Businesses saw an opportunity to develop a new market and ‘in-car camera’ pilot projects emerged in cities that could afford them. The first pilot in the State of Illinois started in 1991 (Koziol 1991). By the late 1990s, Gerald Arenberg, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington, D.C recognized that many police departments struggled to find the thousands of dollars needed per patrol car for in-car camera kits (Bucsko 1998). In 2002, the IACP was commissioned by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to evaluate the impact of in-car camera usage on “officer conduct, management of the agencies and the public’s perception of police” (IACP 2003). The COPS agency had already made US$22 million in funding available for in-car camera kits across the nation. The report claimed ‘in-car cameras provided a substantial value to agencies using them’ on a range of measures including safety, accountability, training, performance and homeland security (IACP 2003:2). In-car cameras, the report suggested, were the holy grail of policing and much more.

One of the areas of concern identified in the IACP report was the management of data, specifically ‘storing, filing and retrieving video evidence’ (IACP 2003:2). Some departments would allow officers to self-manage data storage while other departments created positions for that task (Bucsko 1998). Relatedly, the issue of when video should be captured created tension for many departments. In the 90s, a police department in Florida requested the vendor override the design that allowed officers to turn the recording on and off so that the recording was perpetual (Mossman 1998). This was a rare request among several hundred clients according to the vendor, which created technical problems with the machinery and left officers feeling like they were being watched by big brother. Without control to turn the recording off and on at their discretion, the officers lost some of their autonomy. Including officers in the gaze of surveillance technology categorized them as a suspect population and reflects a shift in police supervision (Ericson and Haggerty 1997). A shift not welcomed in all departments. In Canada, then Chief of Police for Toronto Police Service Julian Fantino was outraged at Provincial policy that would mandate in-car cameras. Fantino called it a ‘hammer over the head of police officers’ whom he felt did not need to be monitored so closely because they could be trusted (Mackie 2003).

Historically, police reform has routinely been resisted by police sub-cultures that have “succeeded in undermining or diluting reforms that were implemented after a scandal” (Weitzer 2005:21). Research in the UK demonstrated early on that sub-cultural norms can and do support the circumventing of state efforts to record police behaviour using video cameras (Norris and Armstrong 1999). Researchers have argued that police operated video surveillance is more likely to be tampered with than systems run by other authorities (Goold 2003), calling into question who is protected ultimately by the adoption of new surveillance technology. The in-car camera footage of Laquan McDonald’s death was withheld from public viewing for a year under the thinly veiled pretence of further investigation (Friedersdorf 2015). This is typical of footage created by police forces, which according to Ben Brucato are “…most often used for their benefit and restricted from legal access by civilians or their attorneys” (2015:462). Moreover, Chicago Police officers allegedly accessed and deleted CCTV footage at a nearby Burger King moments after Laquan was killed (Guardian 2015).

Laquan McDonald was killed on a busy public road in front of several human and machine witnesses. The in-car camera footage paints a very grim picture of the potential for surveillance technology to create cultural change in policing. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, a few months after Laquan’s death Mayor Emanuel announced a body worn camera pilot project for the City of Chicago, which he framed as a way to rebuild trust and to give citizens a sense of safety in the city (Spielman 2015). Purchasing more cameras may look promising on the surface, however, it side steps the real issue. Without a change in policing culture, more cameras will only produce more recordings of what the previous generation of cameras has captured.


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Bucsko, Mike. “Cost Limist Police Cameras 30 Percent of 119 County Departments Can Tape Incidents.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 7, 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times Nov 24 2015 “Editorial: Justice Delayed Becomes Justice Denied.” Chicago. Accessed December 1, 2015.
Ericson, Richard V., and Kevin D. Haggerty. 1997. Policing the Risk Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Friedersdorf, Conor. “The Corrupt System That Killed Laquan McDonald.” The Atlantic, November 27, 2015.
Goold, Benjamin J. “Public Area Surveillance and Police Work: The Impact of CCTV on Police Behaviour and Autonomy.” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 2 (September 1, 2002): 191–203.
Guardian. 2015. “Chicago Mayor: ‘I Understand People Will Be Upset by Police Shooting Footage’ – Video.” The Guardian, November 25, 2015.
Harris, David A. “The Stories, the Statistics and the Law: Why ‘Driving While Black’ Matters.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, January 11, 2000.
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United States of America. “Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing.” International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2003.
Spielman, Fran. “Emanuel Launches Body-Cam Pilot to Rebuild Trust between Citizens and Police.” Chicago, January 1, 2015.
Weitzer, Ronald. “Can the Police Be Reformed?” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 2005.

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