Responding to the recent, brutal police killings of Black men and women nationwide, some towns and cities are considering the once-radical notions of defunding, disarming, or even disbanding their police departments. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, has taken the most visible step, with the City Council there promising to “defund and dismantle” the MPD. Activists hope many other places will follow suit.

These moves may yield genuine improvements in public life in the United States, something other than the same old tired reforms — civilian review boards, community policing, recruitment of Black and brown cadets, training and so on — all of which have proven to be ineffective.

But even as the nation contemplates local movements towards smaller and less lethal police departments, a new threat is looming: the growth of new surveillance technologies touted as “alternatives” to policing and incarceration.

Nowadays the technology includes the thick blanket of surveillance cameras mounted on buildings, fixed points, vehicles, and police themselves; alert, alarm and communications systems; electronic monitoring shackles; data-extraction techniques; and drones. Drone patrols seem particularly likely to surge in years to come, with the nightmare possibility of drones making arrests or simply delivering death. Robocop returns.

Equally terrifying is the possibility of ever more data-extraction, to the point that people’s transit, travel, employment, education, purchases, and so on become restricted from afar. Finally, there is Electronic monitoring (EM), widely used across the United States for extra oversight in parole, and increasingly as a method of punishment when people are sentenced to EM–bound house arrest directly.

As many have explained, EM is not an “alternative to incarceration” but rather “another kind of jail.” Its breathtakingly oppressive costs rack up to the hundreds within one month and the tens of thousands for longer terms. The devices often malfunction, lose radio or Wi-Fi connection, or record location incorrectly, triggering a violation that can land a person back in jail on a longer sentence than they originally faced because the violation itself is classified as a crime. There is also no evidence that they succeed in preventing crime or compelling attendance at trial.

Electronic monitoring is dreadful enough in its current incarnation — bulky, hot, often painfully chafing ankle shackles — but even more insidious forms of surveillance are waiting in the wings: smaller, more powerful devices, even cellphone apps, capable of capturing much more data than the simple, location-tracking GPS that dominates the market presently. This technology already extends carceral spaces beyond brick and mortar prison walls, and is developing even faster as governments try to employ such apps to track the spread of COVID-19.

“Assuming that ‘defunding the police’ gains momentum, and even starts to happen somewhere, I think it’s highly likely that surveillance policing of one kind or another will replace some human policing,” says Mike Nellis. Tony Platt agrees: if reformers are successful at defunding and dismantling it is “very likely,” he says, that “EM will get a big boost as an ‘alternative’ to policing and incarcerating.” Michelle Alexander calls e-carceration the “newest Jim Crow.” Ruha Benjamin calls emerging technologies the “new Jim Code.”

Technology is only as fair as the society that generates and applies it.  No surprise, then, how deeply anti-Blackness is woven into the history of surveillance. Today, given the profound racialization of U.S. urban space, spatial restrictions are racial restrictions, and spatial restrictions are one of the most likely outcomes with more widespread surveillance policing. 

Indeed, such restrictions already exist, as in the exclusion zones where people with sex offense convictions cannot work or live. Take the case of the overwhelmingly Black and brown city of Camden, New Jersey. When the city disbanded its police department, replacing it with a smaller county force, it simultaneously deployed an astonishing array of surveillance devices.

Some 121 cameras “cover virtually every inch of sidewalk,” supplementing a 30-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol. Around the city, 35 microphones can detect the exact location of a gunshot, while multiple scanners can read license plates. Yet liberal reformers see the “Camden Model” as a viable alternative.

In many cities, private security systems already exist, and these can be put to public use through mandatory or voluntary conscription. Philadelphia already does this. The “SafeCam” network, in which police provide residents with security cameras to “deter crime,” obligates those who accept them to give law enforcement access to their camera footage at any time.

Existing security cameras from such companies as Ring and SimpliSafe are also being patched directly into police departments, often by having the company do its own direct outreach to customers. One recent solicitation from SimpliSafe to its clients came via email, reported Jasmine Heiss, the Vera Institute’s campaign director for In Our Backyards. It read:

As our police departments and emergency responders respond to this crisis, they are getting stretched thin. We want to help. We want to do our part to reduce their burden — while making sure you get help when you need it most. Here’s how: All you need to do is turn on Video Alarm Verification — a feature that’s already included in your system. With Video Verification, if someone breaks into your home, our monitoring pros act immediately to inform the police they have visual proof of an active crime. And that means police dispatch significantly faster. That makes you safer.

These companies are profiting from the love affair so many people have with personal surveillance cameras in their houses, an extension into domestic space of our obsession with the cellphones that grab all our data.

Those who hope to chart a path to a police-free world will have to reckon with the implications. Even as protestors of racist police brutality have succeeded in pushing localities to move towards shrinking their police departments, they need to anticipate and, if possible, forestall, the spread of electronic surveillance. Activists today might consider adding to their demands that local governments not replace aggressive policing with aggressive monitoring.

Sources: Mike Nellis, electronic communication 6/14/20; Tony Platt, electronic communication 6/14/20; Jasmine Heiss, electronic communication 6/14/20.

Micol Seigel is professor of history and American studies at Indiana University Bloomington.