The main approach of the project is providing and facilitating a space of convening and support between police monitoring and technology monitoring initiatives across Europe. Having organised several online meetings during 2022, we finally found a chance to meet in person in April 2023 in Belgrade.
This first in person convening was a leap forward for the group to build trust and connection which formed the basis of very inspiring exchanges of police and technology monitoring experiences. We took time to clarify steppingstones for further building an infrastructure that would support future collaboration. All in all, it was a moving space of reflection that we managed to carve out from ongoing struggles in our individual contexts, and sparked a shared sense of purpose and solidarity.
Amplifying local struggles
One of the high points of the event was connecting with organisers based in Serbia. In the workshop titled Highlighting the local struggles in Serbia: border monitoring, antiracism & more, migrant solidarity groups Klikaktiv, Infopark and No Name Kitchen shared notes from immensely difficult political and legal contexts that people on the move find themselves in, and the ways in which organisers are trying to provide counselling and other means of support. These groups are also collecting testimonies and documenting the ongoing systematic violence at the borders, including physical violence but also threats of deportation, money extortion and stealing personal belongings of value. They shared that EU-supported agencies play an important role in the increasing violence on the ground. Frontex is more and more present at the non-EU borders being one of the main drivers of pushbacks and deportations with “no criminal accountability for their actions, meaning they would not be put on trial in Serbia regardless of how serious of an offense they might have committed.” Another group presenting in the workshop, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) that provides free legal aid for Roma, charted cases of racialised criminalisation and culture of impunity within the police.
Police tech across Europe – what’s going on?
During the event, we sought to identify general directions and trends in Europe when it comes to policing and policing technologies. The European Union is managing a concerted effort of undermining human rights standards in this regard: from Frontex guards being involved in deadly pushbacks, to directing funding to countries that offer hundred percent fingerprint availability, or to pushing countries to integrate facial recognition into their security systems, the EU seems to be dedicated to further building a union of social control undergirded by a symbiotic relationship between tech corporations and the states. Notorious moves such as interlinking and expanding databases -interoperability - for making massive amount of data accessible to police forces at national and EU level, directly harm people-on-the-move. Considering the context in which this framework was pushed forward in 2016, scapegoating Muslims and refugees as major security threats, racialised communities are all at risk of further criminalisation. The EU is also backing up this surveillance architecture by optimizing operational support: dashboards to visualize police data better, mobile apps that allow police to access databases for reporting incidents and check biometric data while out on the streets.
Likewise, risk prediction and predictive policing technologies form another pillar of this surveillance regime that feed into already existing practices of criminalisation such as stop and search, arrest, and detention. Predictive tools such as Top600 in the Netherlands, RADAR-iTE in Germany, or Delia in Italy have led to constant surveillance and deprivation from access to certain services for individuals, their families and even entire communities and neighbourhoods that are deemed to be “highly risky”. Highly intrusive data analysis tools such as social media surveillance are also used to target people on the move, activists, people suspected of terrorism, and people seen as “gang related”. Remember ten young Black men who were charged in the UK with conspiracy to murder, with the argument being that they were part of a gang and the content of a Telegram chat used as evidence against them.
Watching the watchers
In the face of such a highly challenging context, organisers and criminalised communities know that we are neither desperate nor hopeless. Copwatch and anti-repression groups have been monitoring the police and supporting communities to resist policing to prevent harm as well as to facilitate political education to enable community self-defence. Many of them see police monitoring as a form of resistance which leads to taking informed social action and building power. Documenting the role of police surveillance tech is being increasingly included in that effort. Therefore, exchanging methodologies of police monitoring has been an important part of our conversations. Many groups have their own online reporting service through which people who have had a negative encounter with the police can seek support, and some are collecting testimonies on the ground. Filming the police and gathering footage of police misconduct have been an effective tactic as well. There are great examples of reverse engineering footage that helped reveal the truth. Data visualisations such as the StopWatch dashboard mapping stop and searches are similarly using technology to help organisers hold police forces to account. FOIA requests are also a common way of gathering information, even though these are not available in many countries due to the lack of response from authorities. Collaborating with aligned investigative journalists or civil liberties organisations who utilise this mechanism effectively can shed some light during investigative work.
In some contexts, police ombudsmen might have a role to play. For instance, in Belgium an oversight body’s report has helped to reveal the use of facial recognition technology by the police. Nevertheless, the role of independent police oversight is dubious and mostly performative since ombudsmen are not rooted in the communities. Some participants noted that such mechanisms might be useful for monitoring and reporting institutional issues within the police, such as racism, but not the individual cases of police violence. Another official mechanism available to families is coronary inquests in case of death of someone from a police conduct incident – the police is obliged to hand in information. That process is also fraught with the issue of not centering families and disrupting organising around a specific case, since the legal processes take so long.
Shifting the narrative, shifting the power
In parallel to accumulating such solid body of data, experience and analysis over years of organising, people in the space also feel the absolute necessity of reimagining the world that we live in and challenging the dominant worldviews. Starting from the premise of technology as inevitable, neutral and progressive, which enables the police to use tech as a means of control, as a counter argument we need to situate the discussion within historical use of policing and surveillance. Surveillance in all its hi- and low- tech forms has been historically intended and used towards oppression of the racialised and the poor as “not a moment in time, but a continuation in history”. Within the dominant narrative, both the police and tech are presented as solutions to social issues such as “drug use” and “poverty” while the only thing they do is to help maintain status quo. Both the police and technologies such as AI exist to classify and determine who might commit a crime, which feeds into the notion of problematic individuals that need to be contained.
As a counter move, we need to insist on structural transformations that seek to eliminate punitive institutions. In line with moving away from reformist approaches, centering the truth instead of justice via state processes has come to the fore as a proposal for police monitoring work. There has been a tremendous amount of energy inadvertently being spent in engaging with the official channels of seeking justice as a means of holding police to account. As an alternative, some groups shared experiences with the centering of truth by tapping into the power of investigating cases of police brutality within the community and exposing them to the public, rather than being denied their dignity in legal pathways. In that way, we don’t get stuck trying to bring cops to justice. People’s forums and tribunals like Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex” and The People’s Review of Prevent are inspiring efforts of centering community truth, and discussing the question of what justice looks like to us.
Looking forward, we will keep on immersing ourselves in the inspiration we get from ongoing resistance across contexts, political education, self-defence strategies, comradery, and practices of alternative ways of building social justice. Feel free to reach out if you are pondering similar questions.
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Contact Esra Özkan: E.Ozkan [at] lse.ac.uk