NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

Book Review: “We See It All” is a good study of current local police capabilities

We See It All is one of the most chill­ing, dystopi­an nov­els I’ve ever read.

Except it’s not actu­al­ly a nov­el. It’s a short work of non­fic­tion about sev­er­al ele­ments of tech­nol­o­gy and prac­tices in mod­ern polic­ing in the Unit­ed States, and how those com­bine into the poten­tial for a Panop­ti­con beyond any­thing imag­in­able in 18th Cen­tu­ry thought exper­i­ments or George Orwell’s worst fears.

Most peo­ple will be famil­iar with at least some of the ele­ments that Econ­o­mist jour­nal­ist Jon Fas­man cov­ers regard­ing local law enforce­ment capabilities.

But where it real­ly shines is the impres­sion it makes and atten­dant grow­ing hor­ror the read­er expe­ri­ences real­iz­ing that these capa­bil­i­ties are not an “either-or” choice for each depart­ment to make but a “yes-and” over­lap­ping of powers.

Fas­man cov­ers Auto­mat­ic License Plate Read­ers (ALPRs), body cam­eras, sur­veil­lance drones, elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing such as ankle bracelets, Ama­zon Ring footage and oth­er pri­vate­ly owned data as well as how cops get access to it, and the ShotSpot­ter audiosys­tems that detect what they think to be gun­shots and deploy cops to it quick­ly. The thir­teen-year-old shot by Chica­go police recent­ly, Adam Tole­do, was killed by an offi­cer respond­ing to exact­ly that sys­tem.

As much as any indi­vid­ual piece of sur­veil­lance and con­trol can be jus­ti­fied by the expe­di­en­cies of the moment or in the name of “crime pre­ven­tion”, “deter­rent”, “rapid response”, etc., the over­all impres­sion when con­sid­er­ing them togeth­er is some­what shock­ing, espe­cial­ly as Fas­man dis­cuss­es new­er tech­nolo­gies just rolling out such as facial recog­ni­tion. Again, these are all just at the lev­el of local polic­ing, not what the mil­i­tary, NSA, or Home­land Secu­ri­ty have access to.

While crit­i­cal of some aspects of law enforce­ment and ful­ly aware of its his­to­ry as a method of dom­i­nat­ing and ter­ror­iz­ing Black and brown peo­ple across the Unit­ed States, Fas­man is not an abolitionist.

He states his pri­or assump­tions upfront and acknowl­edges that as a mid­dle-aged white man, even his neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences with cops at traf­fic stops and the like have been in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent world from young Black men in particular.

We See It All by Jon Fasman

We See It All by Jon Fas­man (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

This is appre­ci­at­ed and help­ful for know­ing how you as a read­er ought to judge his report­ing on all of these top­ics as you make your way through the book. It allows you to see where his skep­ti­cism is com­ing from as well as what its lim­its are.

Sub­ti­tled, “Lib­er­ty and Jus­tice in the Age of Per­pet­u­al Sur­veil­lance”, the book is brisk, infor­ma­tive, and effi­cient read­ing in how it dis­cuss­es all of these var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies and practices.

Long before the end, you can see quite eas­i­ly why Fas­man is so con­cerned at the ways law has not kept pace with the capa­bil­i­ty of the state to mon­i­tor, dis­ci­pline, and pun­ish those it con­sid­ers wor­thy of that treatment.

In terms of style, a minor crit­i­cism is that the author men­tions the book was expand­ed from a series of arti­cles he was writ­ing; not hav­ing read those arti­cles, that is def­i­nite­ly the impres­sion you get from each chapter.

But again, a major util­i­ty is that all this is in one place and orga­nized in a way that can be ful­ly self-referential.

There are two major issues I took with the book and have grown larg­er the more dis­tance I’ve had since fin­ish­ing it.

The first of these is that the ulti­mate dan­ger the author sets up in the begin­ning and returns to repeat­ed­ly is the idea that Unit­ed States is head­ing toward a sur­veil­lance and state con­trol sys­tem akin to the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China.

For an author who admits to know­ing all about the FBI’s COINTELPRO tar­get­ing of left-wing groups like the Black Pan­thers, anti-Viet­nam War activists, and Amer­i­can Indi­an Move­ment, and for an author who under­stands that still today, fed­er­al, state, and local law enforce­ment work to sur­veil and bru­tal­ize poor, non-white com­mu­ni­ties with reg­u­lar­i­ty, there did­n’t seem to be a need for a for­eign boogey­man of Ori­en­tal despotism.

The Atlanta spa shoot­ings in March took this from a nag­ging con­cern to one I could­n’t stop think­ing about because for all of the “#StopAsian­Hate” hash­tag-style activism and state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty going around.

The truth is that it’s extreme­ly bipar­ti­san to set up Chi­na and Chi­nese peo­ple as an exis­ten­tial threat, as an alien Oth­er threat­en­ing Amer­i­can hege­mo­ny of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, and this extends to Asian Amer­i­cans in gen­er­al due to the his­to­ry of white suprema­cy in this coun­try toward them and its his­tor­i­cal lack of dis­cern­ment in met­ing out violence.

The out­rage and shock by Amer­i­cans at the treat­ment of res­i­dents of Hong Kong by police there was war­rant­ed; but it would be pret­ty rich to try to warn peo­ple that, if we Amer­i­cans did­n’t watch out, our own police might start bru­tal­ly repress­ing peo­ple like that some­day. This was true even before the sum­mer of 2020 and the copi­ous video evi­dence of local cops and fed­er­al agents beat­ing, tear-gassing, and arrest­ing every­day peo­ple or whole neigh­bor­hoods at their plea­sure. But such a farce has moved beyond humor now.

This Sino­pho­bia is, nar­ra­tive­ly, a major part of the book’s mes­sage, and this aspect is com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary. When we say, “#StopAsian­Hate”, that ought to include bring­ing up Chi­na for, quite frankly, no good rea­son except to avoid tak­ing stock of our his­to­ry and short­com­ings of state sur­veil­lance and domination.

The sec­ond major issue is the use­ful­ness of police forces.

Police are direct­ly descend­ed from slave patrols; they have always been instru­ments of uphold­ing white suprema­cy through incred­i­ble vio­lence, and they will always pro­tect pri­vate prop­er­ty rather than peo­ple, which is why they have sided with strike­break­ers to beat unions and con­sid­er bro­ken win­dows an exe­cutable offense, depend­ing on the prop­er­ty and person.

I have, in my life, been stolen from, assault­ed, lived in homes that were bur­gled, and had numer­ous friends who were sex­u­al­ly assault­ed, includ­ing vio­lent­ly sex­u­al­ly assaulted.

The police were not any help in these cas­es, and this is not count­ing the cir­cum­stances where the police were the per­pe­tra­tors of these harms.

In some sit­u­a­tions, such as when a land­lord tried to with­hold thou­sands of dol­lars ille­gal­ly, it was­n’t even some­thing that was in their purview; if we’d called police when a for­mer employ­er stole thou­sands of dol­lars in over­time wages from my entire office of cowork­ers, at best cops would like­ly have referred us else­where to lodge a com­plaint. Yet, they respond dif­fer­ent­ly when a land­lord wants to evict some­one for missed rent or you’re accused of steal­ing a work computer.

These are all the sorts of things Fas­man is already well aware of, so what is frus­trat­ing is not his lack of knowl­edge but a con­cep­tu­al frame­work com­mon to peo­ple who are hung up on the idea of “police reform” or worse, “re-imag­in­ing the police.” That is, police are fun­da­men­tal­ly good and nec­es­sary and can be fixed to be some­thing more bad than good. (“What if we could pho­to­graph them in the act?” peo­ple have been say­ing since 1884.)

But this is some­thing like say­ing that the inva­sion and occu­pa­tion of Iraq could have been reformed or “done right” if we’d just had the right peo­ple in charge, the right train­ing for the mil­i­tary, and the right account­abil­i­ty struc­tures for pri­vate mer­ce­nar­ies. It’s true: Abu Ghraib and the Nisour Square mas­sacre weren’t inevitable. But what the U.S. mil­i­tary did to Fal­lu­jah was it doing its job.

You can­not destroy cities, dis­place fam­i­lies, and kill peo­ple with­out destroy­ing cities, dis­plac­ing fam­i­lies, and killing peo­ple. There is no kind­ly ver­sion of an occu­py­ing mil­i­tary force; it turns out not to mat­ter so much what per­cent­age of the troops of the occu­py­ing pow­er are of a local eth­nic group, proved in Bal­ti­more or Afghanistan today just as sure­ly as the British Raj a cen­tu­ry and a half ago.

Review­ers have the excep­tion­al­ly easy job of say­ing, “Why did­n’t you write the book I want­ed to read?”, and there’s some of that in my com­plaints above.

But Fas­man him­self invites this crit­i­cism specif­i­cal­ly with his detail­ing in Chap­ter 6 of the drone sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny “Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems” and its ser­vices. He gives the per­son­al his­to­ry of Ross McNutt and his time in the Air Force, includ­ing using mil­i­tary drones to mon­i­tor the entire city of Fal­lu­jah in Iraq to try to catch insur­gents there.

Now, Fas­man is high­ly skep­ti­cal of the whole endeav­or in a civil­ian capac­i­ty; he dis­cuss­es the wor­ries peo­ple have about their civ­il lib­er­ties, and the lack of trans­paren­cy or over­sight police depart­ments like Bal­ti­more have between them want­ed and get­ting such a new capability.

But he says that the sys­tem “per­formed well in Iraq” — for whom, exactly?

Would the peo­ple of Fal­lu­jah agree that it per­formed well?

Or do we just mean it per­formed well for the U.S. mil­i­tary to achieve its imme­di­ate objec­tives of bomb­ing and shoot­ing the peo­ple it want­ed to?

In a sim­i­lar vein, Fas­man dis­cuss­es a time when Ciu­dad Juarez, Mex­i­co, across  the bor­der of El Paso, Texas, was one of the most dan­ger­ous places on earth in terms of homi­cides due to the strug­gle between the Sino­la and Juarez car­tels for con­trol of that, par­tic­u­lar­ly lucra­tive nar­cotics corridor.

He relates how the city gov­ern­ment hired Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems to put McNut­t’s drones in the sky for as long as the city could afford and were able to solve some mur­ders that oth­er­wise would­n’t have been. The ques­tion is: are Mex­i­can peo­ple safer when Mex­i­can police have this technology?

For Amer­i­cans who aren’t emo­tion­al­ly attached to defend­ing Mex­i­can police and con­sid­er them dis­tinct from U.S. police, this dilem­na should be eas­i­er to rec­og­nize. If you’re wor­ried that a vis­it to Mex­i­co might involve the local cops shak­ing you down for a bribe to avoid jail, how com­fort­able are you with them being able to track your every move­ment once they enter your jurisdiction?

If you think this trade­off is worth it to com­bat the source of car­tel vio­lence, what defense do you think there is from car­tels brib­ing local author­i­ties to use the tech­nol­o­gy to track rivals or sim­ply infor­mants? The enti­ty that ulti­mate­ly grew into the car­tel Los Zetas even start­ed as a group of Mex­i­can army com­man­dos defect­ing. Imag­ine if they’d been able to take sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy with them.

As of 2016, about eighty per­cent of Seat­tle police offi­cers lived out­side of the city. Rank-and-file offi­cers in the guild over­whelm­ing­ly believe a reac­tionary crim­i­nal in Mike Solan best rep­re­sents their image and inter­ests; they enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly assault and oth­er­wise abuse pro­test­ers regard­less of the pro­test­ers’ tactics.

And of course, they lie from things as mun­dane as where they should be reg­is­tered to vote to things as sig­nif­i­cant as how many offi­cers were injured. They’ve been under a fed­er­al con­sent decree for a decade for their abus­es and con­tin­ue to act with impunity.

The King Coun­ty bud­get can with­out exag­ger­a­tion be said to pri­mar­i­ly be a crim­i­nal legal sys­tem with some oth­er assort­ed func­tions:

The 2021–2022 Pro­posed Bud­get requests $1.92 bil­lion in pro­posed appro­pri­a­tions. […] The crim­i­nal legal sys­tem con­sist of the Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), the Depart­ment of Adult and Juve­nile Deten­tion (DAJD), Jail Health Ser­vices, the Pros­e­cut­ing Attorney’s Office (PAO), the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Defense (DPD), Supe­ri­or Court, Dis­trict Court, and the Depart­ment of Judi­cial Admin­is­tra­tion (the clerk’s func­tion to sup­port Supe­ri­or Court). Togeth­er, they com­prise 71.6 per­cent of the Gen­er­al Fund.

With­out near­ly so neat a break­down for my home coun­ty in West Texas, the city of Odessa is sim­i­lar­ly a Fire Depart­ment and Police Depart­ment with a few oth­er ser­vices added on, and Ector Coun­ty is a way to get peo­ple into jail, keep them alive while there, and send them back into the world or to a prison.

This is not a bro­ken sys­tem, but a well-oiled machine hum­ming along.

Local gov­ern­ments don’t have a lot of mon­ey, but what they do have, they put into cops, jails, and crim­i­nal courts. Giv­en more resources and more tech­nol­o­gy, they will con­tin­ue to use it just as they always have because this is their purpose.

Many peo­ple remarked that Min­neapo­lis in the days of the Derek Chau­vin mur­der tri­al resem­bled more the Green Zone of Bagh­dad than what they expect­ed of an Amer­i­can city. And yes, it is the impe­r­i­al boomerang at work, the tools honed on fron­tiers brought back to the metro­pole to do bloody, effi­cient work.

But parts of the Unit­ed States have always been colonies embed­ded in the poli­ty. This vio­lence, sur­veil­lance, and dis­re­gard for lib­er­ty and pub­lic safe­ty has always been present. There are worse tools you can give colo­nial troops to dom­i­nate the pop­u­la­tions they occu­py, but they can nev­er be good.

This is Amer­i­ca, and it’s always been what Amer­i­ca is to some of its peo­ple. The threat of vast­ly greater sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy is not nec­es­sar­i­ly that we will become more like Chi­na; it’s that we will con­tin­ue to be America.

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