The Matter of Fact: Copwatching and the Politics of Documentation

Prince Grace, Northwestern University

Since the first comprehensive federal review of law enforcement in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, police accountability has been framed as a problem of not just what police do, but how civilians know about what police do. Nearly a century later, continued frustration with the lack of robust data on law enforcement practices has led to a proliferation of grassroots projects to monitor, document, and investigate police behavior. Drawing on archival research, interviews, and case analysis, this paper examines the conditions that have informed the historical development and persistence of these technical projects within broader movements for police accountability. In particular, I investigate how documentation and data collection emerged as tactics of contention in the mid-1960s. While most studies of the role of public documentation in police accountability focus on the individual use of camera technologies, this paper focuses on organized, collective projects that employ a range of techniques including tape and video recording, photography, paperwork, research, interviewing, cataloging, and reporting. These efforts have framed data production as at once a mechanism of knowledge generation and a technique of coercion while also disrupting conventional distinctions between technocratic and contentious politics. Theorizing the institutional and extra-institutional dynamics at work, I argue that knowledge-disruptive institutional practices and weak state accountability mechanisms have led to the development of bottom-up structures of accountability rooted in systematic knowledge mobilization. I conclude that, taken together, these conditions constitute accountability as a sociotechnical field of contention.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 81. Quantification, Data, and the Politics of Social Provision