Lotte Houwing and Gerard Jan Ritsema van Eck ‘Police bodycams as equiveillance tools? Reflections on the debate in the Netherlands’ (In press) Surveillance & Society.
In the United States of America, police bodyworn cameras (bodycams) were introduced to protect civilians against violence by law enforcement authorities. In the Netherlands, in contrast, the same technology has been introduced to record and discipline the behavior of the growing number of citizens using their smartphone cameras to film the (mis)conduct of police. In answer to these citizens sousveilling the police and publishing their images on social media, the bodycam was introduced as an objective referee that also includes the perspective of the police officer. According to this view the bodycam is a tool of equiveillanc: a situation with a diversity of perspectives in which surveillance and sousveillance are in balance (Mann 2005).
Various factors, however, hamper the equiveillant usage of bodycams in the Netherlands. Firstly, the attachment of the bodycam to the uniform of the agent leads to an imbalanced representation of perspectives. The police perspective is emphasized by the footage that is literally taken from their perspective, in which others are filmed slightly from below, making them look bigger and more overwhelming. Also, the police officers movements create shaky footage with deceptive intensity that invoke the image of a hectic situation that calls for police action. Secondly, it is the officer who decides when to wear a camera and when to start and stop recording. This leaves the potential to not record any misconduct. Thirdly, access to the recorded images, whilst in theory open to police and citizens alike, is in practice exclusively for the police.
Within the current regulatory framework, bodycams are thus not neutral reporters of interactions between civilians and the police. We will end our contribution to this Surveillance & Society Dialogue section with suggestions for improvement of those rules, and reflect on the question whether bodycams can ever be objective referees.