Brandon Alston: "Recognizing “Camera Cues”: Policing, Cellphones, and Civilian Countersurveillance"

Hybrid: In Person, 402 Social Sciences Building & via Zoom

Over the past decade, recording technologies have enabled organized activists and ordinary residents to capture and circulate videos of police interventions. Existing research focuses primarily, however, on organized activists who rely on formal training programs to record police interventions. 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 police interactions enable them to interpret officers’ words and actions as symbols of procedural injustice, which, in subsequent exchanges, serve as signals to record events with cellphones—what I term “camera cues.” Camera cues facilitate situated conceptions of legal authority that trigger residents’ distrust of police. Equipped with cellphones, residents scrutinize officers’ outward displays and police–civilian interactions to challenge procedural injustice. 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.


Brandon Alston is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University with graduate certificates in African American Studies and Teaching and Learning. His research examines how surveillance systems operate across poor neighborhoods, prisons, and parole programs. Several organizations have supported his commitment to research, including the National Academies of Sciences, the American Bar Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. Brandon’s research has also received awards from national professional associations, including the American Sociological Association, the American Society of Criminology, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. In 2021, Northwestern inducted Brandon into the Edward Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. Brandon also uses research to implement social interventions in Black communities to address racial disparities in mental health and gun violence. Before attending Northwestern, Brandon earned a Master of Science in Management (MSM) from Wake Forest University School of Business, where he was a Corporate Fellow. He also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Religion (with distinction) from Haverford College, where he received the Mellon Mays Fellowship.