Social media puts police under scrutiny

The city of Cleveland is on alert because there are several issues that could trigger unrest. I got an email from our university president about contingency plans in case of trouble. Other places of work are warning their employees that there could be disruptions and to be ready to work from home if they can and parents are being told that they can keep their children at home if necessary. City officials and police are taking other preventative measures.

One flashpoint is that the non-jury trial of police officer Michael Brelo is over and any day now the judge could issue a verdict. Brelo was part of an insane high speed chase involving over 62 patrol cars and 100 police officers that ended with two unarmed people having 137 bullets pumped into them.

The other is the decision by the prosecutor about whether to prosecute the police officer who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice who had a toy gun.

Then there is also the case of 37-year old Tanisha Anderson whose death while in police custody was ruled a homicide.

NPR had a revealing segment about how police are reacting to the newfound scrutiny they are under and the fact that the public is becoming more defiant. This is because social media has made people aware of acts of police brutality all over the country and as a result the excuse that such acts are the work of a few bad apples is wearing thin. Instead, they are seen as signs of deeper problems within the police culture that has to change.

Sgt. Steve Staletovich of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, who was at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial to watch the riders arrive, and who has been a law officer for 30 years, says the public mood is ugly.

I’ve seen lot of changes, lot of ups and downs,” he says. “I’ve gotta tell you — the current situation is about as bad as I’ve seen.”

It’s an example of how America’s local police departments now find themselves on a national stage. When something happens in South Carolina, cops feel the effects in Indianapolis. And as you talk to cops, one word keeps coming to mind: “disruption.”

It’s a Silicon Valley cliché, but police embrace it — and they’re quick to point out the technologies doing the disrupting.

“Social media has made stories that never would have been heard or seen before, national news,” says Staletovitch.

One of the changes is that the public is not taking things passively anymore.

Police say another side to this “disruption” is the change in the way they’re treated by members of the public. They’re nearly universal in saying that people seem a lot more willing to question an officer, or even to challenge the officer and “talk back.” They say it’s as if people have been practicing what they’re going to say in their minds, by watching other people’s videos of their encounters with police.

And not only is the public getting bolder, it’s getting smarter.

Mark Best, a police trainer in Washington state, says they just seem to know more about the rules governing police work.

“They may know how far a police officer can go,” he says. “They do the research on the Internet. Where it used to be you had to go down to the law library, now you just click a mouse button and people know their rights — which they should.”

Some police sound wistful for the old days when all they had to do was bark out an order and everyone would immediately comply out of ignorance of their rights or for fear for getting abused. They call it maintaining a ‘command presence’ but what they really mean is instilling fear in the public.

Still the public’s boldness is running into conflict with the training of modern American police. For the past few decades, officers have been taught a technique called “command presence” — using a forceful tone and body language to take charge of a scene. It’s meant to keep a situation from spinning out of control, but to members of the public who feel entitled to ask questions, it can also come off as offensive.

And it looks terrible on video.

In Seattle, Cloyd Steiger worries that command presence is giving way to public disrespect.

“There’s nothing wrong with, you know, saying, ‘Hey, why are you stopping me?'” he says. “But I’m talking about the in-your-face, ‘you can’t touch me,’ trying to walk away and stuff that leads to physical confrontations that wouldn’t have led to a physical confrontation before.”

Steiger thinks that the public is emboldened because violent crime is down but that reduced police aggressiveness will lead to a rise in crime and then people will ask the police to go back to doing what they did before.

Criminology professor Laurie Robinson of George Mason University doesn’t agree. She’s the co-chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“I’ve been involved in criminal justice for more than three decades. I don’t think this is just a pendulum swing,” she says. “I think that there is something different, now, in part because of the visibility of what’s occurred.”

I think Robinson is right. This is not part of a pendulum swing. The steady decline of violent crime over the past four decades is not due to brutal police methods. If we can move away from the insane war on drugs that puts people in jail for possessing even small amounts of marijuana, then crime statistics would get even better and our jails would be far less full.

Furthermore, the public seems to have had it with being pushed around by police, and social media is driving things towards greater transparency.

Police simply cannot get away with the kinds of things they got away with before.


  1. says

    “And not only is the public getting bolder, it’s getting smarter.”
    And to be fair, the public started out with a leg up on this point

  2. says

    The public resistance of Americans to the criminal behaviour of cops is a “disruption”? That’s as farcical and false a claim as “disorderly conduct” and “resisting arrest” when there was no justification for arrest in the first place.

    This is what happens when people who have never been accountable start being held to account, like bullies being held responsible for their actions and the victims standing up to them. They don’t like it and cry foul despite the fact that the resistance to it is completely legal, and it is the thuggish bullies who were breaking the law.

  3. flex says

    One of the suggestions David Brin made in his book, The Transparent Society is while there is an increase in CTV cameras used by the police to monitor public areas, the public should also be pressing to install CTV cameras in the rooms used by the police to monitor the CTV cameras in public areas.

    It would have been somewhat difficult when the book was published to do so, but these days you could easily have a public feed to all the CTV camera, including the ones being controlled by police as well as a monitoring camera in the police control room.

    You would have to ensure there wasn’t an alert that a person was watching, but if the police know that anyone, from their supervisor to a person on a smart-phone could be watching what they are doing, some of the behavior reported by independent police monitors (like zooming in on women’s breasts) would be caught, reported, and reduced.

    Between this and mandatory body cameras, I think we could, over time, start to change the police culture in many communities.

  4. lanir says

    I’ve seen this before with family. One side is acting very authoritarian. They start with the deck stacked almost entirely in their favor and they’re in control. They use every single play they can and run out of tricks whereupon they reminisce about the good old days when they still had a full deck of tricks to play. Makes about as much sense as wishful thinking about how great it would be if you could get back every dollar you ever earned so you could spend it again.

    At times like these it’s actually not that difficult to figure out which side has the problem and where you need to go to start addressing it. The only difference between what they’re wishing for and the money example is that it’s easier to pretend nothing happened when you spend goodwill than when you spend money.

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