Editorial: Policing the police

·3 min read

WILL cameras worn by police officers while executing search warrants and warrants of arrest prevent grave abuse of authority, often resulting in the assault and death of suspects?

The Police Regional Office (PRO) 7 will train police officers on the use of 256 body cameras distributed to all city police stations in Central Visayas in keeping with rules requiring its use that was recently released by the Supreme Court (SC).

According to a July 14 SunStar Cebu report by a team headed by Kevin A. Lagunda, the SC en banc released on June 29, 2021 a resolution requiring the Philippine National Police (PNP) and other law enforcement agencies to wear cameras during the execution of warrants.

These rules are welcomed by PNP Chief Guillermo Eleazar as he pointed out that any recording made on the devices will prove that “accusations of human rights violations hurled against the police were unjustified,” reported SunStar Cebu.

The complex system of law and order is accomplished through social control, with the law enforcement authority recognizing that its devolved power emanates from the State and therefore accountability for the use or misuse of this power is due to the State, not to the people.

The body cam is a panopticon device that is supposed to deter police abuse or violence through surveillance. In the surveillance system, society is the real subject of surveillance, with the police as actors or instruments that channel the State’s authority to subject citizens under surveillance to achieve social control.

Will the watchers take seriously that they are being watched and monitored when they know the system of “peace and order” relies on them to execute the watchdog and guard dog functions?

In Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon theory, the architecture for authority and discipline put the guards in a tower encircled by prison cells holding inmates. While the inmates are always visible to the guards at all times, the guards can barely be seen due to the tower’s design and thus, are beyond the watching of the inmates.

This one-sided surveillance creates feelings of vulnerability in the watched and regulates their behavior because, being unable to know when they are watched, the inmates are conditioned to behave as if they are always watched.

Michel Foucault extended the panopticon system to apply on the modern use of state power to achieve the docility and compliance of citizens. Internalized discipline is the result of citizens accepting as natural the domination of the State for public good and consequently conducting themselves according to the normalized rules of right and wrong. The State, through its representatives such as the police, grafts its authority into the consciousness and body of a citizen, who regards the State as a benevolent power and abides by its decisions.

The body cam, a mere electronic “bug,” hardly disturbs this system of power and discipline. The SC rules include accepting evidence gathered when a body cam or alternative recording device is not used under “reasonable grounds.”

The malfunctioning of the device is included in these “reasonable grounds.” Can a police investigation determine if a body cam malfunctioned during or after an incident of police abuse?

According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, US data show that police killings happen under many conditions other than violent crimes, with traffic stops emerging as triggering the highest reported cases of a police officer killing a citizen, followed by mental health or welfare checks, domestic disturbances and non-violent offenses.

In the Philippines, suspects die while in the custody of the police or under their watch and protection. Internalizing the concepts of the human rights of suspects and the police’s accountability for their power is more essential than a theoretical discipline imposed by a panopticon device that can malfunction at the critical moment.

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