Raw video: Tactics + strategy for a YouTube age

Police filming students during the anti-cuts demonstration in London 26.3.2011A Law Enforcement Today article recently covered the question: what do you do when a civilian starts recording you for a YouTube video?

Regardless of whether your jurisdiction’s policy is to view videotaping as Constitutionally protected free speech, or a danger to officer safety, stated author Jean Reynolds:

Criminal justice experts suggest the following guidelines can go a long way to head off liability problems arising from citizen videotaping:

  1. Always identify yourself immediately as a police officer.
  2. Speak clearly and courteously, avoiding inflammatory slang and street talk.
  3. Use positive words like “cooperate” and “protect” whenever possible.
  4. Describe what you’re doing and why.

One problem: memory in high-stress situations is a tricky thing, as the Force Science Research Center has shown. That’s compounded by the fact that online video is as easily edited as it is recorded.

Weeks following the pepper-spraying of UC/Davis student protesters — once the damage had been done to both agency’s and officers’ reputations — an “extended cut” of the incident surfaced. In fact, the officer responsible for pepper spray use, along with his colleagues, had communicated extensively with students before spraying them.

Emphasize strategic as much as tactical messaging

Telling officers to “behave professionally at all times,” regardless of what they’re doing, where they are or whether they’re being videoed, is important… but overemphasizes the tactical aspect of a situation. Department commanders should also consider strategic aspects, including:

Community culture. Watching the full UC/Davis video was almost like watching newsreel from 1968. The protesters were organized, using professional activist tactics to push the situation in the direction they wanted it to go. Police commanders need to be not just aware of activist organizations in their communities, but also in regular contact with them before, during, and following events — acting “as facilitators rather than a force to be confronted.”

The nature of journalism. Traditional journalists have argued that “citizen journalists,” who are not beholden to the same ethical standards, can edit video, text and images with impunity (among other issues). Professional media, however, are not immune; their businesses are suffering, and they’re hungry for saleable stories. So while police and media may have reached a communication standoff in many communities, helping media understand the specific agency’s point of view is key to helping citizens understand.

The messages they themselves are transmitting — intended or unintended – to their communities. After I posted the LE Today article to my Google+ stream, I received this response from a civilian:

The article alludes that there is a “problem” with the video taping of police?… Why is it a “problem” when citizens do it, but its “for protection” when the all-seeing-eye is on a cruiser’s dashboard? If you’re doing your job honorably, and following protocol, in many cases, that tape just became (or should have) “your protection”, no?… These [four items] sound like things [police officers] should ALWAYS be doing (esp. #1 & 2), regardless of any “problem” or “fear” of recording.

In other words, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not encourage the kind of relationship-building which most chiefs agree is essential to community policing.

Open government and officer safety need not be at odds

Officer safety is a real concern, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to point to ambushes that happened because attackers had been studying videos of police tactics. Some of the highest profile ambushes have been crimes of opportunity: four officers killed in a coffee shop, several shot as they sat in their idling cruisers, an officer killed during a traffic stop.

Governments at all levels pay lip service to embracing transparency without understanding what it entails, which is usually a path full of thorns involving personal privacy, sometimes ugly truths, and the hard work needed to fix problems (often despite tight budgets). However, many Americans, both left and right, express fear that we are sliding towards — or living in — a police state. Officer safety is as much a function of public trust as it is tactical prudence. Law enforcement agencies that champion transparency, starting with public scrutiny for their officers’ actions, will go a long way towards assuaging that fear.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Cleaner Croydon

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