Did you watch that viral video of a cop singing along to ‘Shake it Off’? Or the police officer who did choreography from ‘Formation’ for a school audience? How about the one who dressed up as something silly for Halloween and handed out candy instead of tickets? The media is filled with cute little human interest stories like these, of cops doing silly or funny or sweet things, and they’re designed to humanise law enforcement, to break down barriers between cops and the rest of us. See, cops like saving cats from burning houses too!
Some of these are reflections of community policing efforts, in which law enforcement explore the possibility of doing their jobs by getting to know the people in the community and interacting with them. Some come from police departments with a sense of humour and a good sense of PR. Some are truly just random happenstance. They usually have feel-good headlines and are packaged in a way that is designed to elicit emotion, like ‘aw, that’s so cute’ or ‘that’s so inspiring!’ The internet has facilitated the distribution of this kind of content, allowing dash cam video from Maine to go globally viral, for photos of police officers rescuing ducklings from a storm drain to pop up everywhere across the internet.
And let’s be clear here: I am not anti-cop. I don’t have an intrinsic problem with law enforcement and I am not deeply offended by the fact that police exist. However, law enforcement in the United States has some serious structural problems and we need to be talking about them, because they are clearly not going away just by thinking really hard. These are tough, uncomfortable issues and sometimes they drive some very difficult conversations that law enforcement and the public alike do not want to have. That doesn’t mean those conversations can’t happen.
The problem with these cutesy humanising things is that instead of being used as a resource to connect members of the public and law enforcement so they can have conversations, they are instead used to effectively shut down and dismiss the very real problems that people are bringing up. When a viral video of a highway patrol officer helping goats cross a highway is getting more attention than the results of a use of force study showing systemic patterns of abuse, that is a huge problem. And that’s what’s happening right now.
Because feel-good stories are easy. They are fun. I have enjoyed my fair share of dashcam footage of cops doing silly or cute or sweet things and I freely admit that. It’s easy. It’s simple. It doesn’t require intellectual engagement on my part. Seeing highway patrol officers block off multiple lanes of traffic while some goslings cross 580 during rush hour is cute and kind of funny. Seeing police engage directly with their communities is a heartening sign of the way law enforcement can and should go.
But it does not mean that I am done having conversations that need to be had. When I see something about the San Francisco Police Department being funny and cute going viral, for example, I think about how multiple investigations have shown that the department uses excessive force and that the victims are commonly people of colour and/or disabled people. One officer dressing up in a silly costume or helping someone do something doesn’t magically erase that — but that’s why departments distribute those videos. Not just to humanise their officers, but to glide over difficulties they’re experiencing. Don’t kid yourself.
And some of those videos themselves illustrate the problems at hand. There was a viral video earlier this year that had a cop pull people over to hand out candy or paper with smiley faces on it or something similarly inane. People laughed and circulated it, the nice friendly neighbourhood officer showing that people have nothing to be scared of when being pulled over. But people DO have something to be scared of, and at the same time that video was making the rounds, at least two police shootings involving Black men who had been pulled over for no reason and then shot also for no reason occurred. If I were a Black man being pulled over I’d be terrified, and I’d be pissed if the cop just pulled me over for the purpose of a publicity stunt.
The stunt illustrated that the department and the officer involved didn’t understand why people are afraid of being pulled over. No one particularly wants to be pulled over, and for lots of people the fear is one of lost time or an expensive ticket or something frustrating. But for some, the fear is that being pulled over will result in being shot and killed. That is a very legitimate fear, given trends in policing, and it is one that cannot be addressed by handing out candy to the people you pull over. That is something that departments should be talking with members of the community about in a structured environment where people can safely express concerns and make recommendations. It is something that departments need to be thinking about in training, so they can develop comprehensive use of force policies and implement them. It is not something that should be the subject of a cute viral video.
They say that the cops who do the worst damage are a few bad apples, and that logic is probably also used to defend these cute cop videos — we’re just humanising departments and helping people get to know and like the police. But the thing is, some people actually have really good reasons to distrust, fear, or even hate the police, and seeing a cute dash cam video doesn’t change that, but it is used to invalidate their extremely serious concerns about law enforcement practices in America.
Image: Police, El Gringo, Flickr