Communication Currents

Watching or Being Watched: What Are Police Media?

December 1, 2013
Mass Communication

When you think about the police and the media, an episode of TV’s most popular prime-time show NCIS is far more likely to come to mind than a breathalyzer. Yet, we want to propose a new method for analyzing the relationship between the media and the police that might change such thinking. In communication studies, it is common for scholars to look at how television shows and films represent the police. For example, crime shows such as CopsNYPD Blue, and the plethora of Crime Scene Investigation spinoffs tend to forward a law and order agenda by encouraging the public to identify with the police and overestimate the regularity of crime. In our essay, however, we wanted to refocus attention on the media technologies that allow police agencies to carry out the work of policing.

We were mostly interested, then, in media technologies overlooked by scholars who tend to focus on what have historically been considered mass media. Our approach draws upon media scholarship coming out of Germany, originated by Friedrich Kittler, that suggests media be understood in terms of how they select, store, and process data. Therefore, we examined technologies such as mug shots, radar detectors, wiretaps, and even breathalyzers. Without these kinds of technologies—which allow cops and police technicians to collect evidence and build their database—the labor of policing would look radically different. So our essay provides several historical case studies of how media technologies have been essential to the very functioning of the modern police force.

Before the late 18th century, public police forces didn’t really exist in Europe or North America. Around this time, however, a number of social and economic fluctuations led to an increase in concern over criminal activity. Urbanization and industrialization, in particular, helped produce a social climate in which many authorities lobbied for the development of a police force. Yet, as these early police forces appeared in the early 19th century, they struggled with a problem that still plagues police administrations today: how to police large urban spaces with limited human resources. If you need to police a metropolis like London, but only have a few dozen officers, how do you maximize those officers’ presence through time and across space? One of the best answers to this question is technology, specifically the kinds of technologies that facilitate communication between (1) the public and the police, (2) multiple officers on their beats, and (3) officers and their patrol administrators.

Different media technologies, then, were promoted as the best way to police urban space with a sparse patrol. To facilitate communication between the public and the police, certain professionals—such as innkeepers, carriage drivers, and saloon owners—were required to keep records on their clients and then pass that information on to the police. Telegraphic private boxes and telephonic call boxes were introduced in the late 19th century, allowing everyday citizens to report crimes. In addition, to communicate with one another while walking their beats, police officers used whistles and rattles before eventually turning to radio communications. As these technologies evolved—for example, as wireless technologies allowed officers to cover a greater distance without being isolated from the rest of their force—the nature of policing evolved in kind.

Two other related aspects of policing were enhanced by media technologies: automobility and evidence collection. The growth in automobile use expanded the range of the police beat and the speed with which police could respond to crimes, but it also created a whole new category of criminality—traffic law. As early as 1920,various police departments were at the forefront of using radios in automobiles to facilitate information sharing, population monitoring, and patrol coordination. Further, police agencies experimented with new media technologies to collect forms of data specifically needed to enforce traffic laws. Small and reliable radar detectors and breathalyzers were needed to collect and store speed and blood alcohol content data to enforce speed limits and anti-drunk driving laws. Mobile versions of these media technologies were specifically developed for policing.

A final concern of police media is the desire for so-called perfect communication. Policing agencies have worked for centuries to share evidence with each other and with the citizenry to extend surveillance capacities with the goal of capturing criminals. However, data generated and stored by analog media—photographs, witness testimony, detectives’ observational notes—have historically been difficult to share because of a lack of inter-agency communication resulting from technological incompatibility or institutional inefficiencies.

The dream of exhaustive and perfectly sharable police data has found its newest salvation in the realm of the digital. Especially since the FBI failed to detect the 9/11 attacks, the widespread sharing of digital police data has been promoted as the best way to ferret out any and all potential terrorist attacks. This desire for near-omniscient digital data collection and sharing has reoriented what we ultimately consider police media. As more and more citizens’ personal data are automatically collected via Facebook, Twitter, Google, television, and mobile phones, we suggest all media are being turned into police media.

About the author (s)

Jeremy Packer

North Carolina State University

Associate Professor

Joshua Reeves

Oregon State University

Assistant Professor