Who Watches the Watcher?

In a month in which Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott two years ago, was found guilty of second-degree murder and obstruction of justice and video of another fatal police shooting went viral, it was heartening to read the Society of American Archivists’ “Issue Brief: Police Mobile Camera Footage as a Public Record.”

Photo of police uniform with built-in body camera by JobsforFelonsHub.com via CC BY license.

Among the most powerful statements within the brief is this sentence:

“The Society of American Archivists has a vested interest in developing and advocating for comprehensive policies to govern these records in the interest of serving the public good and affirming the importance of Black Lives.”

Then follows a list of action items.

“In accordance with this position, SAA will:

  • Support efforts to define police mobile camera footage as a public record under existing public records laws according to local, state, and federal statutes.
  • Advocate for standardized practices of recording, processing, storing, and making accessible police mobile camera footage.
  • Support comprehensive policies that ensure compliance with government records laws by private contractors that sell or maintain police mobile cameras and their attendant evidence management software.
  • Advocate for retention and access policies that, while ensuring government transparency and accountability, protect the personal privacy rights of individuals being filmed, particularly those who are incidental to the investigation or recorded incident.
  • Encourage SAA members engaged with law enforcement agencies, community organizations, and companies that manufacture and sell body cameras and evidence management systems to ensure that archival and records management best practices are considered when developing policies and procedures related to police mobile cameras.”

The statement is relatively brief but exceptionally nuanced and thoughtful. A paragraph near the end acknowledges the dangers of constant surveillance:

“While acknowledging the evidentiary value of police-operated camera footage, SAA recognizes the tension between the public’s right to know and personal privacy concerns. Police-operated cameras capture deeply personal information and large amounts of footage that are incidental to any potential investigation. Law enforcement agencies should avoid the indiscriminate retention of personally identifiable information, including biometric data captured by mobile cameras. Data retention policies must balance the competing needs for citizen privacy and government transparency within practical, technical, and financial limitations.”

I see this engagement with this issue as part of a much longer tradition in which the very archival practice utilized by police forces as a means of exercising power over a populace ends up acting as a check on that power, bearing witness to abuses by police.

Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers, for instance, tells the story of the secret police archives of Guatemala, which were reconstructed after the regime was toppled. These records brought closure to the families of many political dissidents who had been disappeared as part of a coordinated campaign of intimidation and violence.

More recently, the records of a secret interrogation facility in Chicago, IL, were revealed by The Guardian and other news outlets. I remember hearing, when that story broke, that those records had been made available online without redaction, a gross violation of victims’ privacy. I could not, today, locate evidence of that misstep, but even the possibility of such a data dump is a reminder of the value of archival discretion. The same power that can shine a light into the dark parts of our world can have unintended consequences.

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