An Interview With Snowden Becker. “Keeping the Pieces:” Police Work and Documentation

First Amendment, Government Information, Surveillance

By: Brian M. Watson

Bodycams, First Amendment, Live PD, law and order: police work has been in the news a lot lately, and I have been thinking about how the police order, organize, and control all of that information when literal life and freedom are on the line. So I decided to sit down with Snowden Becker, formerly of UCLA, and a researcher into police archives and work.

Note: The transcript below is a blend of audio interview and text provided by Snowden. It has been edited lightly for clarity.

Brian M. Watson: How did you get interested in police archives?

Snowden Becker

Snowden Becker: I started out working in museums as an art-school undergrad, and became fascinated with how those institutions manage collections information. This was in the early nineties, when museums were moving to computerized systems with support for digital imaging, barcoding, and location tracking functions. Around the time I applied to library school, I took a job with a software company that made collections management software for museums, and after I got accepted, I took a part-time job with one of our client institutions, the Japanese American National Museum, that I kept until after I finished the MLIS.

I worked on grant-funded digitization projects with several archival collections—correspondence between incarcerated Japanese American children and San Diego librarian Clara Breed, the diary of Stanley Hayami, photo albums created by soldiers in the 442nd stationed in Europe during WWII, sketchbooks and collections of visual materials. That’s where I started working with archival collections in a serious way, and seeing how complex it was to manage them alongside fine art, ephemera, and research library collections. It was also my first experience working in a community-based organization, where many of the volunteers were people who had lived through the histories presented in our exhibit spaces—or who had close relatives who did—and where many of the researchers who used the library and resources were looking into their personal histories. It was really powerful work, and I learned at least as much from what I did there as I learned in from my classes and professors in the MLIS program at UCLA.

JANM also had a collection of home movies shot by Japanese Americans and people close to the JA community from the 1920s-1970s, so that’s where I became really interested in small-gauge film and home movie preservation. The research I did while applying for grant funding for preservation projects and making that material more accessible led to my getting involved with the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and then to co-creating the International Home Movie Day event and the Center for Home Movies with colleagues I met through AMIA’s Small Gauge and Amateur Film interest group.

Brian M. Watson: One of the things you’ve focused on a lot is filming the police and police work — your dissertation project was called: Keeping the Pieces: Evidence management and archival practice in law enforcement. Can you tell us more about that?

Snowden Becker: For sure! This stems directly from my interest in home movies. Abraham Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination and George Holliday’s videotape of Rodney King’s arrest are the most famous home movies in the world, and they’re both evidence of crimes in progress. I started digging into some basic questions about the intersection of recording technologies and record-keeping in the criminal justice system when I started in the PhD program at UT Austin’s iSchool. We know that consumer-grade cameras have been portable, affordable, and discreet enough to be capturing evidence of historical events and criminal incidents for a long time, but how are law enforcement agencies grappling with the long-term preservation and access issues that are challenging even for institutions that actually specialize in preservation?

At the time—2006-2011—many states were starting to require that custodial interviews be videotaped in their entirety, and even more were deploying dashcam systems as standard equipment in patrol vehicles. Bodycams weren’t quite a thing yet, but smartphones were hitting the market, and the question of how to authentically capture and preserve evidence that came in the form of text messages or social media posts was already cropping up. I was really curious about how all of those new forms of evidentiary media were joining the flow of material evidence that law enforcement agencies were already required to collect, preserve, and provide access to—sometimes indefinitely. Who was managing that stuff? How did they do it? If they were doing it well, what could we learn from their methods? How much of property and evidence management would we recognize as a fundamentally archival process, informed by the values of authenticity, integrity, and reliability that underpin archival endeavors in the heritage or business sectors?

I found an agency willing to let me intern with their Major Crimes Unit, and I spent about nine months shadowing their Crime Scene Investigators and working in their property department, seeing how their information systems worked, what happens to a digital image file from an officer’s camera or a dashcam and how that’s different from the way a DNA sample or a pathology report or a seized weapon moves through the process of becoming evidence. It was absolutely fascinating, and I’m tremendously grateful to the people who spent so much time with me and showed me so much of what they do and how they do it.

As part of that, I had to face a lot of challenges, including becoming comfortable around guns, as someone who was not raised with guns. I also had to learn to just accept what I might be walking into with grace—police archives are not always well funded or high tech institutions. One department’s procedure involved [dumping] harddrives through a mail slot every day, and in another [archive] in Texas I had to deal with large, dark, cool places—which scorpions love too—I had to fight one off one day, and I never wore open-toe shoes again there.

I learned a lot in the course of that research (and I still love that title, “Keeping the Pieces”). But I eventually hit a wall in my dissertation-writing process, and I finally withdrew from the PhD program without defending. But one thing I feel much more free to do now, as someone who’s likely not going to follow a traditional, tenure-track academic path, is produce and share that work in other formats that I find easier to write in—shorter-form pieces like blog posts, or essays in places other than peer-reviewed journals, or by contributing to best practices documents and guidelines as part of the Video Committee of the Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence.

Brian Watson: How does this intersect with privacy/censorship/intellectual freedom?

Snowden Becker: In a lot of ways, I think. I read Jay Stanley and Barry Steinhardt’s 2003 ACLU report “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains” early in the course of my dissertation research, and took a lot away from it. One of the key points they make is that the longer private information persists, the more chances there will be for it to get loose, become un-private, or be misused. In the U.S. especially, our federal system of government means that each state creates their own code of criminal procedure—and the Internet doesn’t work well with ancient, geographically-based ideas about jurisdiction anyway—so creating comprehensive, (inter)national privacy protections likely won’t ever happen. They emphasize that for recordings created with new surveillance technologies, we have to consider “when they will be used, how long images will be stored, and with whom they will be shared.”  

On a policy level, this translates into people who aren’t necessarily records specialists legislating the fundamental nature of record-ness. Look at North Carolina, for example, which declared that as of October 2016, recordings made by police body-worn cameras are simply not public records; therefore, they’re not subject to disclosure under public records laws. That might be good news from a privacy perspective—recordings made inside people’s homes, or in the aftermath of a drug overdose, assault, or suicide attempt, aren’t as likely to be released publicly—but that makes it harder to use such recordings as effective tool for transparency and accountability in law enforcement practice.

It has also brought up complicated questions about research and personal ethics for me. UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies has a long-standing commitment to social justice, and we take a critical approach to the LIS field in teaching and research. For many people here, the idea of doing work with or within police agencies—even with an explicit end goal of radical, fundamental reform—is inconsistent with that stance. There’s just no way to work with such agencies, or individual actors within them, without also being complicit in their most violent and oppressive actions. It’s an absolute point of view, but I think it’s also an easily understandable one.

My own feeling is that I can’t advocate effectively for changes to any system without really understanding it. When I started looking into the literature, it became really clear to me that the processes of property and evidence management—the archival aspects of police practice—were completely black-boxed, and not a matter of interest to sociologists who studied police and policing. And as I learned when I started working in the property room and talking to people who worked there, they’re largely invisible and unexamined processes even within the justice system’s component agencies. One person I spoke to described herself as being like the septic system of the department: nobody really thinks about what she does, but “when I get backed up, the whole place starts to smell.” I also recognize that I enjoy privileges that can be leveraged here. As a middle-aged white woman with easily verifiable academic credentials, I have had a pretty easy time gaining access to the internal spaces of law enforcement agencies and professional associations for property and evidence managers. Being around guns and the abundant traces of violence and trauma that are present in the property room can be unpleasant—I find the sight of stacks and stacks of sexual assault evidence kits particularly unsettling—but it’s not an existential threat. I feel strongly that the work that goes on in those spaces is important, and that my ability to access those spaces and describe that work constitutes something of an obligation to others who can’t get in, but need to know what goes on there.

Brian M. Watson: What does intellectual freedom mean to you?

Snowden Becker: Fundamentally, it means being assured that whether I’m teaching on archival administration, home movies, or surveillance, I can address the topics of the course thoroughly, deeply, and critically. I need to be free from concern that I’ll face reprisal for showing material that someone else defines as explicit or obscene, or for discussing a case study in professional ethics that’s complex, and therefore polarizing. I’m being trusted by my institution to exercise scholarly judgment in what’s relevant, and to keep students’ learning as my central objective.

I’m also able to trust that in my research and scholarly production, I’ll have the freedom to ask difficult questions, to go to the places and work with the people who can help me answer those questions, to present work that’s in progress, and to let my ideas be informed by the input of my peers, collaborators, and colleagues when I share them in public or in private. That’s been especially important to me as I’ve explored the management of audiovisual media and other forms of evidence in law enforcement agencies.

One of the ideas that came forward during the IMLS-funded National Forum that my colleague Jean-Francois Blanchette and I hosted at UCLA was that information professionals might play an important role not just in anticipating and supporting the data management needs that arise from large-scale video-recording regimes like police bodycams—they may become an integral part of those processes, either within the agencies themselves or by forming independent, trustworthy repositories.

Brian Watson

Brian M. Watson is the Archivist-Historian of the American Psychological Association’s Division 44 (Consensual Non-Monogamy), a historian of the book and sexuality, and works as a student archivist at the Kinsey Institute. They are interested in queer classification, metadata and linked data vocabularies, especially in archives. Brian holds BAs in English and History from Keene State College, a MA in History and Culture from Drew University, and are currently pursuing a MLIS focusing on Archives, Digital Humanities, and Metadata at Indiana University Bloomington, with plans to apply for a PhD. They have published a book on the history of obscenity and have a number of forthcoming publications elsewhere. Find them on twitter @brimwats.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.