Viral Videos that Commend, Applaud, and Praise the Police

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.

 

New position: Senior Research Officer at University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre

On July 11th 2016 I will began my post at the University of Essex as a senior research officer. I will will contribute to The Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, which is organized by the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, one of the oldest and most highly regarded HR centres in the world. The project analyses the implications of big data from a human rights perspective. Particular attention is paid to how Big Data enables various forms of surveillance creating both threats to and opportunities to protect human rights.

As senior research officer, I conduct qualitative research examining how various agencies, particularly law enforcement agencies, use big data technologies. Qualitative research has been organized across a range of international research sites including locations in UK, India, US, Germany, and Brazil. Primary data gathering strategies include long-form semi-structured interviews and participant observation.

I am excited about this new opportunity and look forward to conducting cutting research with an interdisciplinary team of experts in the fields of human rights studies, law, sociology, health, and media.

The All Seeing Eye: There Should Be More Studies Addressing God and Surveillance

Most religions suggest that an omniscient and omnipotent god is continuously monitoring human behaviour. Given the influence of religion in human history as well as contemporary society, it makes sense to assume that scholars would be interested in examining god’s divine surveillance. But, despite the rising popularity of surveillance studies, there has been little discussion of this topic, likely because god and religion are touchy subjects. My goal with this post is not to cause offense or make truth claims about any particular beliefs, but to encourage research into the implications of god’s divine surveillance.

My primary argument is that, although atheism and criticism of religion have made significant waves in popular culture and may have influenced a decline in religious belief (especially since the emergence of “new atheism” in the early 2000s – heavily influenced by writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens), religious influence and belief in God remain common in most secular societies around the world. In North America, for example, the vast majority of citizens continue to identify with a religion:

  • According to the 2011 National Household survey in Canada, although rates of religious adherence are dropping, 67.3% of the population identifies as Christian, and another 8.1% of the population identify as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jewish.
  • Similarly, PEW surveys reveal that over 70% of American citizens identify as Christian, and another 5% identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu.

In addition to playing a major role in self-identification, religion plays a key role in shaping every day social rituals, influencing political policies and elections, as well as shaping debates about morality. Accordingly, god and religion remain central to any study of human society.

Such studies overlap with considerations of surveillance because an essential element of religious belief is the claim that moral prescriptions are handed down by a God that is ever present and always watching. As such, even the most personal and private actions (masturbation or day dreaming) are observed by god’s “all seeing eye.” In particular, I would like to see studies examining how the notion of an all seeing God influences human behavior:

  • Do individuals adjust their behavior in response to the idea of god’s all-seeing eye?
  • Can the all-seeing eye have a deterring or chilling effect on thoughts/actions that religious authorities deem deviant?
  • What are the specifics of this all-seeing eye? Does it differ from religion to religion?

God’s all seeing eye is particularly interesting b/c of its omniscience and omnipotence. Because he (god is usually described as male) is said to transcend all time and space, we have no private refuge in which to hide from god; even our inner-most thoughts are subject to their observation.  Furthermore, god’s surveillance is judgemental. Decisions about our health and fortune while living, as well as decisions about our after-life, are made based on god’s surveillance. Accordingly, we are expected to comply with god’s expectations (as expressed by whatever religions a person subscribes to) at all times. When you put it this way, god comes across more like a judgemental supervisor and less a loving and guiding deity.

Thoughts on Police Transparency and The Ferguson Effect

What is Transparency and how does it relate to CopWatching

The suppressive nature of police work (not the mention a history of police officers abusing their power), mean that citizens have long expressed a desire to place checks and balances on police officers. Key to these checks and balances is the ability to monitor and scrutinize police work, sometimes referred to as transparency.

Transparency has traditionally relied on 3 systems:

  • Government: governmental organizations are given the specific duty of monitoring police work to make sure that it meets accepted standards
  • Media: mainstream media outlets are tasked with reporting on police organizations and critiquing police work
  • Internal Investigation: police organizations develop internal systems which scrutinize police work often on the basis of complaints from citizen

However, due to the limitations of tradition systems of transparency, several non-official systems have emerged. One of the most infamous of these systems is copwatching, which refers to the use of bottom-up surveillance systems to monitor and scrutinize police work. Recent cultural and technological changes (the creation of cheap and mobile camera phones in particular) have led to a massive growth in copwatching by creating a citizenry that is better equipped and more willing to monitor and scrutinize police officers.

Though the implications of copwatching are subject to debate, there is no doubt that infamous cases of police abuse have been documented and exposed thanks to copwatchers, and that some of these cases have resulted in the legal punishment of officers guilty of misconduct, financial settlements with victims of police abuse and their families, as well as changes to training and policy (see the Ian Tomlinson case, the Robert Dziekanski case, the Sammy Yatim Case). As a result, copwatching is often characterized by social activist organizations (see CopWatch and Photography is not a crime) as an empowering system of transparency which facilitates progressive and systemic changes to policing.

Despite the optimism of activists, critics allege that copwatching may have some unintended consequences and worrying costs, including the Ferguson Effect. 

What is the The Ferguson Effect and what are it’s implications

In August 2014, a black male named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis) under controversial and disputed circumstances. The ramifications of this shooting are difficult to overstate as the incident resulted in mass civil unrest as well as the emergence of highly influential anti-racist movements (see Black Lives Matter) dedicated to criticizing police organizations for their abuse of racial and ethnic minorities. Some characterize this social unrest as a valuable social movement which will result in significant and valuable social change. Critics, however, allege that this civil unrest has many costs, among the most controversial of which is the creation of a Ferguson Effect.

The Ferguson effect refers to a theory asserting a causal link between increases in crime rates and copwatching (as well as a general rise in the scrutiny of police officers). Proponents of this theory such as Heather Mac Donald allege that copwatching has a chilling effect on police work, as police officers are less willing to do their duties while being monitored and scrutinized. As a result, society is less able to rely on police officers to provide them with safety and security, and criminals are more willing to commit crimes, explaining the rise in crime rates.

Early research has confirmed a rise in crime rates in major U.S. cities, and although there are mixed views as to whether a key factor in this rise is the Ferguson effect, one can see why the crime rate may be impacted by a police force that adopts what is sometimes known as a FIDO (fuck it drive on) mentality when they feel as though they are subject to excessive surveillance and scrutiny. Accordingly, former critics of the Ferguson effect theory such as Richard Rosenfeld (Professor of Criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis) have begun to warm to the idea that it may explain changes in crime rates.

The implications of the Ferguson effect are just as controversial as the theory itself. Proponents of the theory allege that the Ferguson effect implies that police officers are being subject to excessive scrutiny and criticism, and that most critics, especially copwatchers, should lay off. I am not so convinced.

A police officer’s decision to disengage from police work because they feel like they are subject to too much scrutiny is not necesarily a sign of excessive scrutiny. In fact, it may be a sign of just the right amount of scrutiny as it means that police officers are perhaps being deterred from abusing their powers. The next step is to encourage police officers not to disengage, but to improve police work so that it can pass the test of working in highly transparent circumstances. To put it another way, the police need to accept the increasingly visible nature of police work and use this as motivation to improve that work, rather than using it as a reason to disengaging from their duties.

The Importance of asking Critical Questions about the Implications of Transparency

Of course, the idea that copwatching can motivate improvements in police work is simplistic. It is important to apply a critical lens to claims from both proponents of copwatching and the Ferguson effect before making conclusions about the implications of monitoring police work. A few questions I think are worthy of special attention include:

  • Can we guarantee objectivity in the copwatching process? Copwatching is likely to be heavily influenced by the politics of those recording police officers, so it is important to ask if copwatching guarantees a fair method of scrutinizing police work.
  • What are the behavioural implications of copwatching? Does copwatching create sufficient pressures to improve police work or, as my own research suggests, does it only create pressures to make surface level changes to police work so that it appears to be improved?

Camera-Friendly Policing Publication

My latest publication,Camera-friendly Policing: How the Police Respond to Cameras and Photographers was just released on the Surveillance & Society Journal’s website. It is available at the following link: Link

The paper discusses how the police respond to the presence of cameras and photographers based on my dissertation research conducted in Edmonton Alberta. The abstract for the paper reads as follows:

Many speculative theories have been proposed offering mixed and sometimes contradictory answers to this question. Some theories propose that cameras will deter police misconduct, others suggest that cameras might improve police accountability, others suggest that police might respond to cameras by engaging in a risk-averse style of policing. Unfortunately, little empirical data is available to assess these theories. Drawing on data from a participant-observation research study conducted in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, this paper helps fill this gap in research and argues that police might be learning to adapt to cameras by engage in what I call camera-friendly policing. This style of policing involves efforts to control how the police are perceived by photographers, and how they will be perceived by viewers of any recorded footage. In this paper, I outline the basic elements of the police’s camera-friendly tactics, and discuss the implications of these tactics for contemporary understandings of police visibility.

Take a look and tell me what you think!

Concept Creep: An interesting idea about contemporary conceptions of harm

For those who don’t have the time (or access) to read Nick Halsam’s Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and PathologyConor Freidersdorf‘s Atlantic article, How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, does a nice job summarizing and responding to its primary arguments. In sum, Haslam and Freidersdorf agree that concepts like abuse, trauma, bullying, mental disorder and prejudice are broadening too much, resulting in an increasing tendency to use these concepts to accuse those who are not guilty of causing significant harm.

Freidersdorf mentions a number of examples including a mother who is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor when she leaves her son in the car while stepping into a mall and a high schooler who is suspended for “cyberbullying” after she complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher. Several more examples can be found here. I can also share stories of concept creep from personal experiences including a student who expressed the desire to launch a formal human rights complaint against a professor who once accidentally called a transgender person “him” (and apologized), or an incident in which a female teaching assistant expressed the view that a male professor was a sexist solely for asking to reschedule an appointment. Without any evidence, the teaching assistant claimed that this was the behaviour of a professor who, because of his gender, thought he had full control over his assistant’s time solely because she was a woman.

I do not think that these examples represent the thinking of movements that challenge sexism or other forms of inequality. However, they may represent a common and excessively broad use of ideas like prejudice that result in mild mistakes during conversation or rescheduling appointments (for legitimate reasons) being made equivalent with other clearer forms of harm (the social exclusion of transgender peoples or sexist pay structures). They also represent a type of thinking which feed life-ruining shaming rituals targeting individuals innocent of any real harm (as discussed by Jon Ronson in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“).

Freidersdorf makes a compelling and balanced argument. He is carful to point out that concept creep is not a tool of a liberal agenda to criticize conservatives (he points out that concept creeping is common across political lines), nor is it an outright challenge to movements challenging social ills such as sexism or hidden racism. Having researched hidden racism, I can say that Freidersdorf avoids a common error (especially among those who allege that society is just “too sensitive” these days) in making the extreme leap from ideas similar to concept creep, to the conclusion that there is no such thing as harm caused by implicit or hidden actions. Avoiding such a trap is a key reason that Freidersdorf’s article makes a nuanced argument worth considering.

Still, I worry about the tendency to direct ideas like concept creep at liberals (Freidersdorf worries about this as well), and the potential for concept creep to be used to outright challenge the study of issues like hidden racism or sexism. Put simply, concept creep is likely to be subject to creeping as well.

Read the article. I imagine it will make those studying topics like prejudice and inequality (including myself) somewhat uneasy at times, but at the very least it’s likely to spark some discussions.