The Master's Tools and a Mission: Using Community Control and Oversight Laws to Resist and Abolish Police Surveillance Technologies
81 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2022 Last revised: 7 Jun 2022
Date Written: March 2, 2022
The proliferation and use of technology by law enforcement is rooted in the hope that technological tools can improve policing. Improvement, however, is relative. Quantitative data and qualitative experience have proven the criminal legal system to be a site of racial injustice and rank brutality. The police are one of the principal instruments of those harms. For the policed, especially those communities who have been harmed by policing and the other facets of the system, law enforcement technologies only reify and exacerbate injustice. Surveillance technologies are of particular concern, as they are disproportionately wielded against economically disadvantaged communities of color, infringe on privacy, and tend to operate under a veil of secrecy.
In 2016, advocates armed with these concerns, launched a campaign to impose regulatory guardrails on law enforcement surveillance tools. Embedded within those regulatory guardrails were provisions aimed at infusing community control over those technologies. To date, those laws—modeled on what are known as Community Control Over Police Surveillance (“CCOPS”) laws—have been enacted in more than 20 jurisdictions nationwide. They are premised on the notion that an informed and engaged community can serve as a check on intrusive surveillance technologies and the abuses that flow from them. The laws empower city councils or their local equivalents with oversight over law enforcement acquisition and deployment of surveillance technologies.
There is a natural tension between laws like CCOPS, which risk legitimizing surveillance technologies in police hands, and efforts that look to an abolitionist horizon by seeking to relieve police of their surveillance tools. I grapple with that tension in this article by evaluating the efficacy of CCOPS and its community control mechanisms, and theorizing ways that the law might be deployed to achieve abolitionist ends. I do so by focusing on the handful of jurisdictions that have enacted a version of the law that looks to an independent community advisory body to serve as an agent for the community, purportedly to exercise some authority over police surveillance technology. Drawing from media reports, publicly available records, conversations with those tasked with the law’s implementation, and other sources, I engage in a qualitative analysis of the law and its community control mechanisms, surfacing their benefits and shortcomings.
Engaging the potential that CCOPS holds as a ratchet for more transformative interventions, the article then suggests ways forward, both for jurisdictions that have adopted the CCOPS model and for those advocates who are pushing jurisdictions to do so. It culminates in a vision that looks to an abolitionist horizon. Such a vision requires shifting power to communities through criminal legal system actors whose interests are aligned with those most often targeted and harmed by the use of police surveillance technologies, amending the law where needed to address its shortcomings, and leveraging the benefits of the law where possible to create the conditions necessary for transformative change. Ultimately, I contend that while CCOPS laws and their community control mechanisms are far from ideal, they should be considered among the suite of tools that advocates can use to end the raced, classed, violent status quo that characterizes the deployment of police surveillance technologies in particular and the criminal legal system in general.
Keywords: surveillance, technology, policing, race, abolition, community control
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