POLICE, BODY CAMERAS, AND PROPAGANDA GAMES?

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Written by Katie Mitchell

Imagine a yoga instructor making the news for successfully maneuvering into ‘downward dog.’ Imagine a babysitter going viral for cutting the crust off a sandwich for a picky toddler. Imagine a crowd applauding a Starbucks barista for adding extra whipped cream to a frappuccino.  Now, imagine a police officer making the news or going viral for protecting and serving, for doing the job he gets paid to do.

When Mike Brown’s killer walked free despite eyewitness testimony asserting that Darren Wilson shot Brown while his hands were up in surrender, the public demanded transparency from local police departments.  In the years since Brown’s death, videos from onlookers have captured what really happens when police interact with civilians.  Walter Scott’s killer claimed to be in “total fear” despite a video showing Scott running away from the officer.  The video also showed the officer allegedly staging the crime scene by placing an object next to Scott’s dead body.  A video also shed light on Eric Garner’s last moments as New York Police Department officers choked him to death using an outlawed chokehold technique.  If these videos did not exist, the officer’s account of events would be the only narrative available.  Incidences like these led to increased calls from the public for police to wear body cameras.

Police were initially opposed to this suggested policy change, claiming that body cameras would create unfair scrutiny.  However, laws that make footage captured on police body cameras inaccessible to the public and gives discretion to local police departments regarding which videos are released and which videos remain hidden from view changed police perceptions of body cameras.  Police departments have used this inaccessibility and discretion to their advantage, employing the very technology they feared would further damage their already discredited reputation as a marketing tool to show “the human side of the badge.”

In a video distributed by a police chief in Connecticut to several news outlets, an officer saves an elderly man from an apparent suicide attempt, pulling the man off a sixth floor balcony ledge after chasing him up several flights of stairs in what the police chief deemed “a heart-pounding act of rescue.” The video was also shared by the police chief on Facebook and Twitter.

Similarly, an officer in Ohio made the news for pulling a man from a burning car. The local news asked the police chief for the body camera footage. The chief emailed the video to the media “and waited for it to go viral.” The release of selective videos to the media demonstrate police departments’ motives of spreading pro-police propaganda.  

While pulling a man from a burning car or stopping someone from jumping off a balcony at the last second appeal to a collective desire to watch blockbuster-esque action, cops are getting coverage for doing what most generally decent people would do. A police department in New Mexico even released the footage of an officer comforting a crying child who had been left in a parking lot.  

Seemingly unaffiliated civilians are also taking part in the pro-police propaganda. In 2015, Nada Owusu, a mother of a black college student, posted a lengthy thank you note to an officer who attempted to help her son change a flat tire. The note, accompanied with a picture in which the young black man looks stiff and uneasy, went viral.  

"What really impressed me is not just the fact that he tried to change the tire, which I didn’t even know police did," Owusu told the Daily News. "What touched me more was that he didn’t leave him on that road, where he could have been hit by another car. As a mother, that really meant a lot to me."

This is yet another example of police officers receiving undo recognition for being generally decent human beings. Have police officers in the US historically treated oppressed communities so bad, that them doing mere acts of general kindness seen as exceptional now? These videos and social media posts aim to undermine the institutional problems within police departments throughout the country, instead promoting the “bad apple” theory.

Police and pro-police advocates’ first line of logic whenever an instance of police brutality goes viral is that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.”  If an officer acted inappropriately or illegally, it is an anomaly that is not indicative of the actions or beliefs of the entire police force.  The police officers in Maryland who were caught planting drug evidence, however, are examples of police brutality and misconduct being a systemic problem that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. In separate, uncoordinated incidences, an officer placed a bag of drugs in a civilian’s vehicle while surrounded by his colleagues and an officer planted drugs on a resident’s property. Counteracting these negative body camera videos with “feel good” body camera video does not even the score.  

The intention of these videos is clear and dangerous.  Police departments are intentionally subverting public trust by disproportionately releasing videos that paint them in a positive light.  If body cameras are to be effective, the laws governing the release of footage need to air on the side of transparency.  We do not need pro-police propaganda, we need justice.