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A global police misconduct crisis and the Total Surveillance solution

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 22.35.29By Simon Davies

Each year, between five and six hundred people are killed by US police. To put the figure in perspective, that’s more than twelve times the number of lawful executions across the nation. Except that in this situation most of the victims are declared innocent.

In human terms, this is a sobering statistic. Spread over twelve years it represents double the number of deaths on 9/11 and it exceeds the total number of US fatalities in the Iraq conflicts. As the CATO Institute put it: “you’re eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist”.

An official “precise” figure – if one has ever been formally compiled – is shrouded, but the ballpark statistic is consistent across a number of calculations.

Police reform is one of the most complex challenges that any government faces

Police reform is one of the most complex challenges that any government faces

Many of the victims had mental health problems, traumatised by anxiety and fear, and many of the killers avoided conviction – indeed a much higher proportion than the equivalent statistic for killings by civilians.

This pattern is repeated in most, if not all countries. US authorities, however, seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the unflattering international comparative data. Figures compiled in England and Wales, with less than a sixth the US population, show that an average of 65 people a year die during contact with police. This figure also includes a high number of road traffic accidents and deaths in custody. Even so, the overall fatality statistic is a fraction of that in the US. Even more stark, UK police shoot and kill an average of only three people a year (though officers do not routinely carry guns).

When wide-ranging and open investigations are conducted into such matters there is, all too often, evidence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice or falsification of evidence by police. In some cases a conspiracy of silence or subversion may involve dozens of officers. Police units are often opaque environments that are resistant to scrutiny and they can fall victim to decisions made under a suspended reality.

Lower down the spectrum of severity, claims of corruption, criminality and brutality are persistent in media coverage across the world. YouTube is crammed with such moments. In many countries the trend of reported police misconduct appears to be rising. Complaints about excessive use of force, threats, false imprisonment, bribery, discrimination, intimidation, unlawful surveillance and misuse of personal information are common – though such behaviour is rarely found to be endemic.

Numerous countries have taken measures to reduce the incidence of police misconduct by improving transparency, reorganising old organisational structures, reforming working conditions and changing entrenched work practices.

Regrettably, many governments have failed to institute independent complaints mechanisms to deal with such problems, choosing instead to pursue largely cosmetic or illusory measures. Meanwhile, public trust in the police slides year on year as the tally of corruption and misconduct revelations increases.

The most important challenge is to find at least a partial solution. Numerous countries have taken measures to reduce the incidence of police misconduct by improving transparency, reorganising old organisational structures, reforming working conditions and changing entrenched work practices. These, however, are externally imposed “top down” measures that can trigger resentment and resistance. Changing the culture of policing requires fundamental reform, which in an era of budget slashing is often impossible. Chicken and egg.

Soon, in the face of such trends, more extreme measures must be considered. One such option is (ironically) Total Information Awareness (TIA) within police organisations. That is, seamless surveillance. Every word uttered, every movement, every interaction with or between police officers would be recorded and stored – fully post-auditable – with vastly increased public scrutiny of police. “Sousveillance“, as Steve Mann describes it.

This approach has been at least partially adopted in some police forces. Video recording devices in police cars, police cells, interview rooms and even on the police themselves have been made mandatory. There has been a mixed response from officers, but most have accepted the new impositions. The chief practical issue is that these measures are piecemeal and do no create a full audit of police activity.

The option of total surveillance involves some difficult choices and consequences, divided roughly into the legal, the ethical, the financial and the practical. Police of course have legal rights that even a broadly framed employment contract cannot trump, but they do have a moral obligation to uphold the law. Yet at a practical level, with morale in many forces on the slide and budgets slashed, how would yet another top-down solution build a better culture? And this is before we even start to consider the ethical dilemma of imposing total surveillance on the police while resisting it for the citizenry.

The short answer is that TIA doesn’t necessarily need to structurally induce a better police culture. Police have consistently argued that surveillance – with sufficient mass – reduces the incidence of deviancy by constricting opportunities for covert behaviour. The case of ubiquitous CCTV and intensive road surveillance in the UK are living examples of this mentality.

No informed person, however, could ever argue that the imposition of total surveillance on any dysfunctional environment will solve all problems (though that hasn’t stopped the police constantly arguing as much).

It goes without saying that the public and their elected representatives need to choose to make a broader investment in police training and support, but it also goes without saying that the current situation surely cannot indefinitely continue. As new technologies come on stream, the public will increasingly impose surveillance on the police, as they have over recent years. This surge of incriminating data will escalate the disintegration of trust.

I argued in a previous article that good law enforcement requires a fundamental mistrust of the police. In the absence of practical solutions to the current crisis I stand by my belief that only when that breakdown of trust reaches a nadir will reform be embraced by the police themselves.