Tag Archives: Citizen journalism

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

Transparency vs. anonymity

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

An interesting debate has cropped up over on ConnectedCops.net about whether police officers should be allowed to blog anonymously.

It started with Lauri’s point in her post on elements of a social media policy (cross posted here and on her blog):

3. Identity. Some bloggers work anonymously, using pseudonyms or false screen names. Law enforcement agencies should absolutely insist that in blogs, wikis or other forms of online participation that relate to the department or the city, or activities or issues with which the department is engaged; department employees use their accurate identity.

Which stuck with me because of the number of excellent cop bloggers who are anonymous. You can read mine and the other comments there. At the debate’s heart: whether anonymity allows more honesty (yes, honesty, not bravado or bigotry or any other negative connotation) than they perhaps otherwise would use.

Positive perceptions

I emailed one of the anonymous bloggers to get his opinion. He doesn’t hide his workplace from his readers, and I wondered whether he was working with his administrators’ blessing. If so, I asked, how was anonymity decided upon?

I just started blogging on my own. I decided that the ‘net was full of the cop sites complaining about bureaucratic and political incompetence so I thought I’d do something upbeat. I figured if it was positive it would be harder for the big shots to complain about it.

A few weeks after starting I was contacted by one of our command staff through the site asking who I was. I was honest about it and didn’t hear anything else…. I was told that they see it as my right and they aren’t intervening….

My anonymity is an open secret at work. It’s a small enough agency that it wouldn’t be hard to figure out from my stories. I’m more concerned about Internet privacy and not being stalked over it. I’ve had some interesting hate mail through the site and I don’t want to give anyone a target.

Again with the officer safety

He continued:

I do think that the Internet opens you up to a whole world of cop haters hiding behind their computer screen. The problem is you don’t know which ones are willing, or capable, of carrying out the threats. I know these people don’t like me, and I don’t care. If I wanted to be liked, I would have been a fireman.

However, I don’t want them having my real name to attach to my blog so they can figure out where I live or otherwise target me. My administrative policies can’t override the first amendment if one of these wack jobs decide to target me because of my blog and post my home address on some cop hating site.

Especially if the hater is clear across the country. At least if some local crazy starts stalking me through work I have a chance of filing charges or otherwise working it out. Imagine if an Internet stalker on the other side of the country does it online, my department would be powerless to stop it or protect me. I’m definitely not putting my name on my blog.

Department-sanctioned tools

Lauri rightly points out that this is the reason why social media policies should cover the tools that are and are not sanctioned by the department. Although I am concerned that this might remove an otherwise important “coping” mechanism for officers, sites like the Experience Project may cover this issue.

Perhaps the real problem lies not in whether law enforcement must sacrifice honesty for transparency, but in whether citizens are comfortable with their police officers having a voice. One chief, who does not blog anonymously, wrote me a few months ago that he was going dark for a time:

One of my illustrious citizens came across my accounts and made a complaint to the Mayor and Council. Of all the things I’ve posted on Twitter, he or she was hung up on a post I made about people acting stupid—alluding to the fact I was either speaking about my officers or my citizens. That particular comment was directed at a vendor I had been dealing with….

City administrators were supportive, but the chief chose to avoid conflict—a shame, because I haven’t heard much from him since.

Honesty vs. liability

Ideally officers can be honest about what they see daily. It might encourage citizens to change their behavior: not calling 911 when their children refuse to go to bed, or to help them take their pills. It might even go as far as citizen journalism. In prior generations, officers with serious concerns about department corruption went to the media. Now, they can be the media. As my contact notes:

If you want to publicly criticize your agency or city management, anonymity is the only thing [allowing you to keep] your job. Look at bloggers like Inspector Gadget–I have no questions he would be fired, or drummed out of his rank, or transferred to some terrible assignment if they found him out. Same thing with Second City Cop. The Chicago Political Machine would probably make them disappear like Jimmy Hoffa.

Indeed, many administrators fear the liability bugaboo. However remote the possibility of a successful lawsuit over “emotional distress stemming from embarrassment” might be from an unnamed citizen who nonetheless recognizes him- or herself, nothing would stop a lawyer from trying—and causing considerable expense, not to mention stress, in the meantime.

Should cop bloggers be allowed their anonymity, or should they be required to be up front about their identities—even if it sacrifices some honesty?

Image: thelastminute via Flickr