The whole world is watching

Camera phones put law enforcement under surveillance


     They may also be more aware of what happens when some of those videos end up on Web sites such as YouTube. As the world's most popular video-sharing Web site, YouTube currently offers tens of millions of user-generated videos for free viewing. Only a handful of all YouTube videos concern law enforcement, but a few of those have received widespread and sometimes inflammatory publicity. One of the most well-known examples is a 3-minute video of an incident several months ago between officers and a university student who refused to comply with instructions to stop disrupting an on-campus assembly. The student's subsequent struggle to resist the officers was observed by hundreds of people in attendance, at least one of whom videotaped the incident with a camera phone and then uploaded the video to YouTube.

     In the ensuing days, the video was viewed on YouTube millions of times. It was linked to countless other Web sites and viewed countless additional times. Within a matter of weeks, the student's recorded shout of "Don't tase me, bro!" had become a nationally known catchphrase. By the end of the year, the Yale Book of Quotations had named it the most popular quote of 2007, and the incident — the student's actions, the officers' actions, what was said and done — had become part of pop culture. Ultimately, the student provided written apologies to the officers and the university, and received a probationary sentence for resisting police and interfering with a campus function. For their part, the officers endured a subsequent inquiry, which affirmed that they had performed appropriately throughout the incident.

The never-ending story

     Before YouTube, that would have been the end of the matter. Now that they've been featured on YouTube for months, though, these officers are enduring an endless 15 minutes of fame, simply for doing their jobs. While such permanence is the nature of the YouTube beast, say experts, it's important to note that individual officers and law enforcement in general can be greatly affected by one simple fact: people would rather watch something they believe shows law enforcement in a bad light than in a good one.

     "The kinds of things that will be videotaped and shown will be provocative," explains Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. "A lot of things may be videotaped, but what ends up on YouTube and what ends up watched by a million people will necessarily be an unusual circumstance. The only reason that a million people are going to watch a law enforcement officer on YouTube is if something unusual happens." In other words, displays of objectionable conduct by officers are rare exceptions to the public conduct of tens of thousands of officers every day, which is precisely why they attract attention. Boyd says, "We have to ask ourselves: what unusual circumstances involving police will be watched by a million people? Will they be positive displays of police conduct? Not likely. So there's a natural skew there."

     Some videos are edited or cropped in an effort to present law enforcement in a less-than-positive light. Other times, because people typically don't start recording until something unusual occurs, many of the videos that seem unflattering to law enforcement don't present the entire story. Conspicuously absent, for instance, are the events that immediately preceded what was eventually recorded.

     "The negatives for law enforcement have to do with whether the public is properly informed with respect to the context in which the video is shot. Sometimes arrests can look rather violent," says Boyd, "but there are often very good reasons for what appears to be the violence or aggression … that surrounds an arrest."

     Russell Ruffin, a San Francisco-based media consultant who offers media relations training to police departments across the country, says the cumulative effect of this can be damaging to the image of law enforcement. "In many ways YouTube has been a disservice to law enforcement," he says. "The whole problem with these people taking pictures with camera phones is that everybody who takes a picture suffers from tunnel vision. They just see it from their restricted point of view and it many times gives them a distorted view of what's going on. Sometimes you see somebody taking a videotape from an odd angle and something looks worse than it really is because people don't have the advantage of seeing it from the officer's point of view."

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