(Editor’s note: Andrea Noble served as a panelist at the National Association of Police Organizations’ seminar on the media.)
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Law enforcement officers from around the country say they are increasingly concerned that video recordings of their interactions with the public are being used to show them in a negative light, creating a “YouTube effect” that is affecting how they do their jobs and, according to the FBI’s director, could be behind a recent rise in violent crime.
The prevalence of smartphones, coupled with increased use of social media, has given everyday citizens the tools to document and report incidents of police misconduct and abuse in real time.
But as more civilians whip out their cellphones to record and later share police interactions on social media, officers say they feel under attack when videos are posted online that capture a confrontation but misrepresent the entirety of the exchange.
It’s given rise to the fear among law enforcement of “death by media,” as Lt. Gary Vickers of the Newark, New Jersey, Police Department, calls it.
“Am I going to be the next one who is put on display for doing an honest job?” said Lt. Vickers, who represents police management through the Superior Officers Association. “It really dictates how a police officer reacts today.”
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To combat what they see as a growing anti-police sentiment among the public, unions representing law enforcement agencies are embracing new strategies to educate the communities they police about their jobs and to humanize officers.
“We had such great public support right after 9/11, and today that support is gone,” said Michael McHale, president of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO).
Officers from more than 30 agencies gathered last week at an annual NAPO convention in San Antonio in an effort to learn how to rebuild that support. The two-day seminar focused on how agencies can interact differently with “hostile media,” highlighting strategies to showcase positive news from their agencies and to better handle difficult situations, such as a fatal shooting by an officer.
Officers in attendance also debated the extent to which the so-called YouTube effect has affected how officers do their jobs.
Sgt. Andrew Romero, chairman of the Austin Police Association’s Political Action Committee, said he doesn’t believe that fear of being videotaped is causing police to be less aggressive and to make fewer stops. But the distribution of such videos, which Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo noted are often devoid of context that would better explain the officers’ actions, can fuel negative perceptions of a department.
“It affects recruiting, retention and morale,” Sgt. Romero said.
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However, the theory that additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers, spawned by unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over a fatal police shooting, has contributed to an uptick in violent crime in some major cities appears to be gaining traction.
In a speech given Friday at the University of Chicago Law School, FBI Director James B. Comey said increased attention on police could be making officers less proactive and emboldening criminals.
“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,” Mr. Comey said, acknowledging that so far there are no data that back up the theory.
Police chiefs from across the country are struggling to identify the causes of crime spikes this year in several major cities, pointing to a host of potential factors including the rise of synthetic drug use, prevalence of illegal guns and recent releases of offenders from prison.
But the added stress of constantly being seen in a negative light is taking its toll.
“We always knew we were being second-guessed,” said Sgt. Louis Dini, secretary of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Superior Officers Association. “But now even when you explain what you did, you are thought of as lying.”
The scrutiny has had an upside: Departments have reformed their practices by scaling back controversial programs, better documenting interactions with citizens and springing for body-worn cameras to record their interactions with the public.
Officer Chris Broderick, secretary of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, said reforms made over the last year in departments across Massachusetts have included better evaluation of equipment used and initiatives to build on existing relationships with community groups.
“Police officers every year become more professional,” Officer Broderick said.