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Recognizing “camera cues”: policing, cellphones and citizen countersurveillance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2024

Brandon Alston*
Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University, Evanston, IL, USA


Over the past decade, recording technologies have enabled organized activists and ordinary residents to capture and circulate videos of police misconduct. Existing research focuses primarily, however, on organized activists who rely on formal training programs to record police behaviors. If formal programs train organized activists to capture police abuses on camera, how then do ordinary residents determine when they should record police behavior? Drawing on in-depth interviews with Black men who live in a Southside Chicago neighborhood, this study finds that residents’ recurrent interactions with police enable them to interpret officers’ words and actions as symbols of police misconduct, which, in subsequent exchanges, serve as signals to record events with their cellphones – what I term “camera cues.” Camera cues facilitate situated conceptions of legal authority that trigger residents’ distrust of police, reflecting the micro-dynamic connections between individuals’ legal consciousness and legal cynicism. Equipped with cellphones, residents scrutinize officers’ outward displays and police–citizen interactions to challenge police misconduct. While recording police behavior makes it possible at least occasionally to resist the dominance of legal authority, doing so often involves additional risks, including the destruction of their cellphones, verbal and physical threats, and arrests.

© The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Law and Society Association.

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I appreciate the generative feedback from participants in the Race and Society Workshop, Crime, Law, and Society Workshop and the Culture and Society Workshop at Northwestern University. I am grateful for the comments that I received from Northwestern faculty, who followed this project at various stages: Gary Alan Fine, Wendy Griswold, John Hagan, Aldon Morris, Andrew Papachristos, Mary Pattillo, Robert Nelson, Laura Beth Nielsen and Celeste Watkins-Hayes. I also value the thought-provoking insights prompted by my colleagues at the American Bar Foundation, the Law and Society Review editors and the anonymous reviewers. Please direct all correspondence to Brandon Alston, The Ohio State University, Department of Sociology, Townshend Hall, 238, 1885 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210.


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