Accepted Papers:

Video surveillance of demonstrations and the police' definatory power  


Peter Ullrich (Technische Universität Berlin)

Paper Short Abstract:

An analysis of video surveillance of protesters in a process perspective as a chain of contingent decisions which are an expression of (sociological) discretion. It ascertains the police’ definatory power, while the results (footage) are labelled ‘objective’ due to their ‘technical’ nature.

Paper long abstract:

Classic work stressed the sociological discretion police exercises, which ascertains its definatory power in processes of criminalisation and punishment.

The contribution analyses the police' use of video cameras for prevention and law enforcement in demonstrations in Germany as an example of such discretion in a sociotechnical assemblage, in which a technical artefact (the camera) plays a crucial rule for reifying a particularistic version of the surveilled events and respective subject positions.

On the basis of group discussions with officers, interviews with commanders and ethnographies of demonstrations the use of cameras and footage is analysed as a chain of highly contingent decisions and objectivations. It contains - among others - the following steps:

• information gathering and definition threat level

• (not) having cameras present

• (not) showing cameras openly

• symbolic use (or not) for deterrence

• recording (or not)

• selection of focus/lenght

• deletion/storage of (which part of the) footage

• filing of additional information/interpretation

• the use (or not) of footage for charges/law suits

• selection of footage for the court

This 'definatory power chain' ascertains the police' definatory power over contested situations, while the results (footage) are labelled 'objective' due to their manifest and 'technical' nature. In the words of a police officer: "because it gives a certain objectivity in the end". It is evident that this (sociological) descretion is systematically denied by the police, which holds up the fiction of being neutral and completely programmed by law. Instead, the influence on decisions of police knowledge and classifications of protesters becomes apparent.

panel T085
Infrastructures, subjects, politics