To protect, to serve … to smile for the camera? While future officers probably don't envision taking such an oath, a new reality of policing life is that cameras are almost everywhere and law enforcement personnel are more likely than ever to be videotaped on the job — not only by the dashboard cams in their patrol vehicles, but also by camera phones that are wielded by an increasingly video-savvy public.
Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief and current manager of the Seminole County Police Academy in Orlando, Florida, advises his trainees to get used to it. "We tell them, 'Remember, in this day and age everybody has a camera phone, and you could end up on YouTube,'" he says. "I kid you not. We specifically address that."
Camera phones were named to Time magazine's list of the "coolest inventions" of 2003, and they've grown in popularity and impact with each successive year. The number of camera phones shipped worldwide is expected to top an astonishing one billion in less than two years. Nearly half of all American households have at least one camera phone already, and it is becoming harder every day to find a phone that doesn't come with a built-in camera or video function. As a result, people from Bourbon Street to Wall Street to Main Street are now in the habit of flipping open their phones and snapping a photo or recording a video of whatever grabs their attention. Anecdotal evidence suggest that people are recording encounters with law enforcement with increasing frequency, leaving some officers to feel as if the public now has police departments under surveillance.Smile, you're on YouTube
"I don't know if surveillance is the right word," says John Wills, a retired FBI agent and a columnist for Officer.com. "Maybe observation is more like it." In this respect, Wills notes that the advent of camera phones has made little difference in the world of law enforcement. Whether being recorded or not, police officers have always been in the public eye and under public scrutiny. A recent Officer.com poll reflects that sentiment, with 54 percent of respondents saying that the public's use of camera phones has had no effect on department operations.
In another respect, though, Wills echoes many law enforcement professionals when he says that videotaping police officers now happens often enough to make it worth addressing in some fashion. "It should probably be mentioned — maybe in roll call or training, or for new cops in the academy — that the likelihood is great that there's going to be people out there with recording devices and the like," he says.
Correspondingly, additional results of the Officer.com poll reflect the fact that some departments have begun to implement policies regarding camera phones. Ten percent of the officers voting in the poll reported that they had received information regarding camera phones, either during roll call or as part of their training. In addition, poll results indicate that other departments may soon follow suit: More than 30 percent of respondents named camera phones as a concern that their agencies had not yet addressed.
Some officers say they don't mind being videotaped, while others view it as an impediment to effective policing. Obviously, says a patrol supervisor interviewed for this article, attitudes about camera phones and about being videotaped while working will vary with the circumstances that surround each incidence of videotaping. Wills points out that an officer's age and the amount of time he or she has spent on the job are additional factors. Among the officers with whom he's discussed the issue, Wills reports that veteran officers seem the most unaffected by the prospect of being videotaped on the job. "The older guys are used to [being observed] and they're set in their ways, so to speak, and they're going to do what they're going to do, regardless," he says. "But the younger generation, the technophiles, the people who have grown up in the video age, they are more cognizant of the fact that people are out there with cameras and cell phones and videos."
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."
Niche Web sites have sprung up that offer collections of user-generated videos related to encounters with law enforcement. One such site is CopWatchLA.org, which promotes itself as a citizens' watchdog organization and functions as a clearinghouse for what it calls "police terrorism" videos. At this site and others, including YouTube, video viewers may leave comments for the next viewers to read. This creates a situation in which, rather than watching these videos in a vacuum free of influence, people who watch a video often read negative comments about it before and after viewing; they find themselves in an echo chamber, where their perceptions could be shaped and then reinforced by the comments of other viewers.
Law enforcement professionals say that, whatever their feelings about being videotaped while they work, most officers are fully aware of the ramifications of how the Internet can be used to generate unfair judgment and publicity — and that fears about how they will be portrayed in videotape could, conceivably, affect their on-the-job decision-making. "The net effect becomes that officers see this stuff just like everybody else does, and they see the public questioning the field of law enforcement," says Weinblatt. "I do think officers are starting to second-guess themselves and think about what they should do."
Wills goes further, voicing the concern many in law enforcement have about the possible interference of camera phones. "We're already behind the power curve in terms of the action-versus-reaction concept that we deal with," he says, "and [videotaping] might put us even further behind because now, if I'm an officer, I'm worried about somebody tape recording me or filming me. That might cause just that little bit of hesitation that's going to cause a cop to get hurt or killed."The camera phone rules
For all the concern about camera phones and anti-police videos, though, virtually all law enforcement professionals say they're here to stay and that the positives of the public's ability to record police officers on the job still outweigh the negatives. "I think, on balance, that it's a positive that there is this kind of capacity," says Boyd. "I think obviously there are contexts in which taping isn't appropriate because it amounts to an invasion of privacy or it interferes with a legitimate law enforcement activity."
Wills notes that, while police officers do a public job in the public sphere and have little right to any expectation of privacy, many people will stop recording police officers if asked. "They know it has its limits," he says, "that fact that you can go out there and think that you can just, you know, film anything." Further, if the recording is capturing a criminal matter, Wills notes, officers might seize the camera to review it for evidentiary material.
Boyd and others say that one basic of police work offers the most insurance against an exaggerated or misconstrued video — officers who make sure they are both familiar with their department's policies and complying with those policies, experts say, will be able to avoid many potential problems, including those that could show up on a video.
In fact, says Ruffin, the widespread practice of videotaping law enforcement activities may ultimately contribute to a greater public understanding of police work. Even the videos that receive negative publicity, he says, "are a chance to make the public more aware of what police officers face every single day." He advises departments to go on the offensive and make sure their side of the story gets distributed via the same medium that the camera-phone videographers use. "YouTube can work for law enforcement as well," Ruffin says. "If you've got a story to tell, by all means record a clip and load it up to YouTube."