Written by: Greg Ellifritz
I was driving my police car last week when I saw a black male in his 60s waiving his arms, frantically trying to flag me down. I stopped the car and walked over to talk to him.
He was doing some remodeling work on a vacant house and was the only worker on the site. When he finished the work, he was supposed to call his boss, who would return to the site and give him a ride home. Unfortunately, the worker flagging me down had inadvertently left his cell phone in the boss’ work truck. There was no phone in the house where he was working and no pay phone in the area. He couldn’t call his boss for a ride home.
Being stranded, he decided to flag me down and ask to borrow my cell phone to make the call. I handed the man my personal cell phone and let him make the phone calls he needed to make.
While the man was making the calls, I looked up and saw another man in a parked car watching us. He was eagerly video recording our interaction with his cell phone, no doubt trying to get some video of a white cop mistreating a black man.
There was absolutely no indication anything like that was happening. There weren’t any loud voices or angry faces. Neither of us was touching the other or moving aggressively. I was just standing there while a dude borrowed my cell phone.
A black man flagged down a cop for help. The cop didn’t arrest the man or beat him up. The cop helped the man in need. It happens every day. But that didn’t stop one random citizen from filming the entire incident in the hopes that he might be able to further the cultural narrative that all police officers mistreat minority citizens.
My first thought as I viewed this amateur film maker was “These ‘social justice warriors’ need to chill out.” When someone tries to turn a simple act of kindness between two men into the next YouTube viral video sensation solely because one of the men has dark skin and the other is wearing a police uniform, it is indicative of a societal problem far worse than the issue of police/minority relations.
That was the second time I had been filmed during that particular week. The first instance involved an arrest out of a traffic stop. It’s relatively rare to be filmed as an officer in the city where I work. My employer is a wealthy suburb. The residents and the police generally get along very well. In the 20 years I’ve been there, we haven’t had a single instance where the public was outraged at police treatment of a prisoner. There have been very few excessive force lawsuits and those that have been filed over the years have all been bogus. Every one has resulted in a dismissal of the suit and the officers have all been exonerated. This isn’t a city that has historically had any problems with its police force…yet the residents still feel that it is important to videotape our encounters with other citizens. Even when those encounters are completely innocuous.
People in a public place have every right to record officers as long as that recording doesn’t interfere with the work the officer is doing. We have cameras that automatically activate every time we turn on the flashing lights in the police car. There’s a good chance that the incident is already being recorded by our own cameras before the citizen ever starts filming on his own. I am filmed by my employer every day at work. Being recorded doesn’t bother me. What bothers most officers is the potential that the film maker’s footage will be edited in a way that misrepresents the interaction solely so that the film maker gains some notoriety on YouTube or WorldStar leading to the perpetuation of a false social narrative.
Clearly, instances of videotaping officers have increased. Many of these videos have resulted in social reform by exposing problems in police policy and training after they have been posted online. That’s a good thing for our profession. Videotaping police misconduct will lead to a long term improvement in the way police and citizens interact. I’m all for that. But that doesn’t mean that videotaping the police (especially when they aren’t doing anything wrong) is without consequence.
As citizens record officers with increasing frequency, what do you think the officers are likely to do?
If there’s a high probability that no matter what an officer does (good or bad) will end up on YouTube in a video critical of police, cops will simply stop working. You see, cops are rarely disciplined for NOT doing something. They get in trouble when they ACT, particularly when the action the officer takes turns out badly or has some undesirable political ramifications.
The easiest way to prevent that is for the officer to stop doing ANYTHING that has the potential of being videotaped. The officer can drive slowly to calls of violence in progress (claiming that he would be putting the public at risk if he drove any faster), arriving just in time to write a stellar report without catching the criminal or stopping the crime in progress. People don’t videotape cops writing reports. That’s not exciting. It’s when the cops are interacting with criminals that the cell phones come out. A simple solution to avoid being taped would be to AVOID INTERACTING WITH CRIMINALS. How do you think that would affect long term crime statistics? Would it be a net positive or net negative for society if cops stopped arresting people breaking the law?
Since it’s obvious that a crime in progress isn’t the only thing that will cause people to break out the cameras, cops will start avoiding interactions with citizens as well. I could have easily driven past the man flagging me down for help. If I was ever questioned about it by supervisors (unlikely), I could always claim that I didn’t see the man or that I was trying to catch up to a traffic violator. I could claim I was en route to another more important call. There could be any number of valid reasons why I didn’t stop for help.
Driving past a person flagging me down for help would ensure that I don’t get videotaped. Avoiding all citizen contact would ensure that my face doesn’t end up on YouTube. I could sit all day in a parking lot doing nothing and virtually ensure that I don’t get taped. The worst thing that would happen is that I might get some kind of reprimand for lack of “productivity.” A written reprimand is a far better option than having my face on a negative YouTube video that goes viral.
So if cops stop arresting criminals and go out of their way to avoid having any type of contact with citizens, would society be a better place? If the goal of the folks with the video cameras is social reform, that’s what they’ll get. But the reform that will happen won’t be a positive one. That makes me think that maybe these folks filming the cops don’t really want social reform. Maybe they want a world where criminals go unchallenged. Maybe they place their own fame and notoriety above the goal of living in a better society. If personal notoriety and unchecked criminal aggression is your goal, then by all means keep filming cops who are loaning their cell phones to stranded construction workers.
The truly sad aspect of where this is heading is the long term effect that it will have on the ability to hire quality police candidates. If I was a conscientious and intelligent person, why would I even consider being a police officer as a career when I know that whatever I do, good or bad, will end up on a video sharing site with a negative spin? Why go through the hassle? Quality candidates will have better career options that don’t involve their unintended starring role in the next viral video.
Do you want your police force to be staffed by lazy and unintelligent officers? That’s the future consequence of increased videotaping of the police. Put more pressure on cops who try to do a good job and they’ll find other ways to make a living. Candidates who have any other career options will refuse to apply for jobs in law enforcement, leaving the ranks of your police department populated by dullards who have no other career options. Do you think that will be a net gain for police/community relations in the long term?
Again, I can’t help but think that creating more positive interactions between cops and citizens ISN’T the goal of the people who wield the cameras. It makes me think that anyone who has half a brain would see that this is a bad idea. Either the folks with the cameras are dumber than I thought or their goal really isn’t trying to create a better world for everyone. That’s something you should ponder…
In any event, I hope the amateur filmmaker in my case captured the heart felt “thank you” the man said to me and the handshake that concluded our interaction. But I doubt that a black man shaking a white cop’s hand is something worthy of posting on YouTube.
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