'All Light, Everywhere' and the False Promise of Predictive Policing

A new documentary explores law enforcement's dreams of omniscience

Tom Cruise in a scene from the film 'Minority Report', 2002. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images...
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Nicholas Russell

Minority Report, a film whose shadow over the “near future” grows longer and longer every year, opens with an eye. Targeted advertising on subways and in clothing stores is triggered by iris scan. The film’s protagonist goes through a laborious process to have his eyes replaced in order to avoid identification. An oracle whose mind is constantly invaded by premonitions of murder repeatedly asks “Can you see?” The future has surrendered itself to surveillance — the eye is valuable both for what it sees and for the personal information it contains. Perception itself has become a weapon of the state, each citizen a camera collecting data to be mined and harvested.

Theo Anthony’s exceptional documentary All Light, Everywhere opens with the director placing a lens over his camera so that his optic nerve, static behind the stuttered roving of Anthony’s eye, is rendered visible. “The optic nerve receives no visual information,” a subtitle reads. “It’s a blind spot.” The film explores the evolution of the camera and its use by the state to surveil its citizens and its enemies. Anthony lashes the genesis of photography to law enforcement’s dreams of omniscience.

In Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s John Anderton, the Chief of the Department of PreCrime, oversees the Precog program, in which a trio of psychic beings is able to glimpse flawed but startlingly precise visions of future crimes. Anthony shows us contemporary entrepreneurs who fancy themselves innovators of technologies that may one day be able to predict human behavior, but, for now, are content to simply track it with increasingly elaborate, “objective” devices. He follows a spokesperson for Axon Enterprise, manufacturer of police body cameras and the Taser, as well as a class of police officers being trained on how to use Axon’s equipment.

Anthony also follows Ross McNutt, president and founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, which uses drones to provide live aerial documentation of crimes in Baltimore. In between these threads lies an unsettling truth: for all of society’s fuss over the moral quandary of privacy and civic rights, the world has become overrun with invasive mechanisms that are only growing in complexity and stealth. The general justification has been safety; knowing more allows us to prevent or outright stop harmful acts. Underlying this narrative, among other things, is the idea that, with enough knowledge, everyone can come to agree on a single version of history, complete with clear categories of good guys and bad guys.

All Light, Everywhere shows a cracked society duct-taped with paranoia: constant surveillance, justice systems propped up by “accountability” through technology that intentionally limits its scope in order to favor law enforcement — a maze of cameras, sensors, and algorithms that obscure just as much as they reveal. At one point, Anthony draws attention to the blind spot inherent in all police body cams — the fact that, even though they are supposed to document an unbiased perspective of what has transpired between officer and citizen, the device only shows what happened to the officer, from his own perspective. In court, footage acts more like a helpful guide to jog an officer’s memory and corroborate his account of an incident.

In Las Vegas, where I grew up, there has been a constant narrative of reform and exceptionalism surrounding the Metropolitan Police Department for years. Following high-profile acts of misconduct throughout the 2000s, Metro pledged renewed transparency and sensitivity with the public, all the while increasing its surveillance technology around the city. In 2017, Clark County launched a pilot program featuring a police technology called ShotSpotter. An audio detection apparatus, ShotSpotter is specifically designed to listen for gunshots, which are subsequently reported to the police.

Initially set up to surveil a six-square mile area in North Las Vegas, the devices have since been dispatched throughout the Valley, their footprint now stretching over 24 square miles. The white box that houses the ShotSpotter sensor looks like an electric hand mixer with the beaters removed, a benign piece of equipment typically set atop streetlights. The box listens, though it’s unclear just how closely. Along with ShotSpotter, the prevalence of Lot Cops, mobile camera surveillance units often set up in parking lots, has become almost banal. These technologies are framed as aids to the well-being of the community, though they are almost always installed without the community’s input.

The dream of predictive policing is nothing new. In the 19th century, Francis Galton, a scientist and eugenicist, attempted to map the common facial features of criminals in an effort to predict what other criminals might look like. (His composite photographs proved useless.) More recently, the LAPD’s Operation LASER (Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration), which used data mapping over crime “hot spots” to inform police patrol routes, but began by ranking the risk of known criminals most likely to commit a violent crime, was shut down in 2019 after public outcry, though the department clarified it is not giving up on “data-driven policing.” Chicago PD’s botched flirtation with predictive policing, which created a “Strategic Subjects List” to predict which citizens would be most likely to be involved in a violent crime, resulted in a man getting shot twice because of increased police presence around him allegedly trying to prevent exactly that.

Police departments across the country hope that technology will not only correct for human error, but shield officers from the accusation that their jobs are meaningless. Maybe with these new tools, they think, the public will see danger around every corner the same way they do. I have been on the receiving end of an officer’s judicial certainty enough times to know that each new tool can and will be fashioned into a battering ram. One of All Light, Everywhere’s subjects, Alphonse Bertillon, a 19th-century police officer who created an early system to profile criminals, said, “The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that of which it already has an idea.” Today’s policing landscape is dominated by private companies that don’t necessarily need to manufacture lethal weapons in order to intimidate a perceived enemy. The most powerful weapon is perception itself.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.