Type the words “police” or “cop” into the YouTube.com search bar, press the ‘return’ key, and you will find yourself staring at raw images of police officers beating people, using racist language, and making violent arrests. Many of these images are recorded by citizens on smartphones, and many will be used to make arguments about the need to reform policing. Due to the growth of a better equipped and increasingly willing population of citizens who video record police officers, the number of these “disruptive disclosures” (Goldsmith, 2010) or discrediting images is staggering, and accordingly, the police may be heading towards an “image-management crisis” (Haggerty and Sandhu, 2014).
However, there is more to the story of policing in an era of smartphones and video sharing than discrediting images. A different genus of images are growing in popularity, images which praise police work, applaud the heroic efforts of individual police officers, and celebrate the strangest elements of police work. These images must receive attention when studying the implications of policing’s growing camera-visibility. Take, for example, the following video:
The incident which this video depicts occurred in Hamilton Ontario Canada. Not much information about the incident is available in the video itself, as it begins after officers have already begun to arrest a young woman. The video shows the officers using force to direct the woman to their police cruiser while she struggles and screams. At one point she notices that she is being recorded by several bystanders with smartphones. She immediately yells “I hope everyone sees this,” implying the video will definitively show the officers are using excessive force, and that the video will be used in her favour if she chooses to file a complaint. A particularly vocal videographer agrees and, throughout the video, he accuses the officers of being too aggressive. If one were to watch only the first half of the video, it would probably be filed away as yet another discrediting video showing a police officer’s excessive use of force.
However, a couple of minutes into the video, one of the officers approaches the crowd of bystanders that has gathered, including the vocal videographer, and begins to explain his actions. The officer is immediately apologetic, not for using force but for creating a disturbing scene. “Okay, for all the nice people filming”, he says, “…I know it may look to be much worse than it is, but I can tell you it is only because she is resisting.” He continues, “our mandate is to effect arrests while doing the minimum amount of damage possible and that’s what I tried to do. It may appear to be very rough to you, I apologize to you for having to see that.” The videographer does not accept the officer’s attempts to explain his violence and continues to accuse him of using excessive force. In response, the officer becomes slightly more hostile, “It’s nice people like you who want to make the police look bad… you chose to come outside sir and you chose to film me, that’s fine. I am not put off by your efforts to put me into a bad light. I’m used to being made [into] a bad guy by nice folk who are getting a fraction of the picture.”
Despite continued criticism from the videographer, when the video was uploaded to YouTube.com, viewers expressed their support for the police officers in the form of online commentary, phone calls, and thousands of emails that praised the officer for his patience and professionalism. The officer also received positive responses from his peers, including the Ontario ombudsman who shared the Honest Cops video on his popular Twitter account. It seems that the Honest Cops video had a promotional effect in that it represented the police in a positive manner and earned a positive response from audiences.
The Honest Cops incident demonstrates that citizens who record the police are not always shaming and criticizing officers. Rather, they sometimes record favourable images of police which can be shared online to a positive response. The video also demonstrates how the police can contribute to the production of a crediting image without being in control of the camera. To do so, they practice what I’ve called “camera-friendly policing,” which includes communicating with videographers in a respectful manner and any effort to explain their actions. In doing so, the officers interject information into recorded footage and, therefore, contribute to the production of its meaning. Through these kinds of camera-friendly actions, viewers of the Honest Cops video were given the opportunity to consider the police officer’s perspective and, based on the largely favourable response to the Honest Cops video, it seems that this is the perspective that viewers found most compelling.