In the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a groundbreaking commentary on the work of British philosopher Jeremy Benthan. Bentham, writing more than a century before Foucault, described a plan for a prison that he dubbed, "the Panopticon." The idea behind the Panopticon was to instill in the prisoners a sense — perhaps even a certainty — that they were being watched by the guards at every second. The "genius" of this plan was that the prisoners could never see the guards, but they could see the guards' tower and as such, it was always in their best interest to assume that the guards were watching them.
In the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a groundbreaking commentary on the work of British philosopher Jeremy Benthan. Bentham, writing more than a century before Foucault, described a plan for a prison that he dubbed, “the Panopticon.” The idea behind the Panopticon was to instill in the prisoners a sense — perhaps even a certainty — that they were being watched by the guards at every second. The “genius” of this plan was that the prisoners could never see the guards, but they could see the guards’ tower and as such, it was always in their best interest to assume that the guards were watching them.
When Foucault discussed the Panopticon, he said, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
In other words, the prisoner will require less actual observation because he will self-regulate through the assumed omnipresent, yet unverifiable, influence of a watching guard. For Foucault, this was a metaphor for many things in modern society. It’s why we slow down when we enter the area of a known speed trap. Even if the cop isn’t visible, we reason we should probably slow down just in case he’s hiding where we can’t see.
This is the same idea that undergirds the Pine Bluff Police Department’s new installation of 13 surveillance cameras around the city. While it’s doubtful anybody in the police administration has a dog-eared copy of Foucault’s work, you need not be a world-renowned philosopher to understand the basic idea.
Unfortunately, the cameras, while predicated on sound logic, lack the one thing that might make them effective deterrents: ubiquity. Unless there are innumerable cameras, deployed in all areas of town, they have little chance of actually deterring anyone from crime. As Foucault observes, it’s that uncertain but preponderant likelihood that makes the surveillance continuous in its effects. To say it simply: If people aren’t pretty sure they’re being watched, their behavior will not change.
That said, the cameras may well have value as a tool for documenting crimes in known hot spots. Illegal dumping, a pet project of Alderman Steven Mays, has been mentioned. If cameras can be judiciously deployed, they may become an effective silent witness to help bring malefactors to justice. The Little Rock police have used video evidence very effectively in this manner.
Many readers have been critical of the cameras, a predictable conspiracy theory-driven bevy of Orwellian state oppression rhetoric blossomed as the cameras were made public. Despite what has been alleged to have happened in the U. K. (where they have tens of thousands of cameras, not just a handful), we have Constitutional protections and an ongoing judicial review of policing technology to guard against government excesses. Of course, people who hate the government will believe what they want, irrespective of the Constitution, the courts and reality. For these folks “novous ordo seclorum” isn’t just a phrase on the back of dollar bills, but a clarion to irrational fear.
As Justice Scallia wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kyllo v. U. S., “Where, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a “search” and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.”
In a case now before the court, Jones v. U.S., we see something similar. The court is not oblivious to the march of technology. The issue was explored with regard to telephone conversations in Katz v. U. S. (1967). The current Justices are not oblivious to Justice Harlan’s admonishment regarding the justifiable reliance on an expectation of privacy. Then as now, we must remain faithful that the courts and the Constitution will keep any putative excess well in check. If nothing else, the police are at least trying something new.