Surveying Surveillance: A National Study of Police Department Surveillance Technologies

Mariana Oliver & Matthew B. Kugler 

Discussions of surveillance practices within U.S. law enforcement agencies often suggest that police departments have ready access to a wide range of high-tech tools. To date, however, most of the empirical evidence regarding police surveillance has come from either qualitative case studies of cities or surveys of the largest departments. While these studies have shed light on the surveillance capacities of large police departments located in larger jurisdictions, our current understanding of police surveillance is limited by a lack of empirical data on police departments in smaller
jurisdictions. This study fills this gap by using data from an original nationwide survey of police departments. First, we discuss existing studies of police surveillance access and the legal regimes underlying each type of technology. Next, we use descriptive statistics to empirically examine the
variation in police access to surveillance tools across different jurisdiction types. Our findings suggest that rates of police access vary widely depending on the type of technology and jurisdiction size. For instance, overall access to and use of cell phone location tracking far outpaces access to facial recognition and Stingray devices, and all surveillance technologies apart from body cameras are more common in larger jurisdictions. We discuss these findings and their implications for civil rights and liberties and the state of mass surveillance more generally.

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