Police work has always been a popular subject of television and movies. There have literally been hundreds, if not thousands of productions based upon the daily workings of police officers. Most police officers I know usually have difficulty watching these creations because they are so loosely based on reality…except for Barney Miller, which is without question the most realistic portrayal of police work ever produced. I found out the hard way that police generally do not like being compared to their television counterparts. Back in my teenage years, my friends and I were approached by 2 female police officers who were investigating complaints about a group of teens drinking at the beach. As the officers approached I made a comment about Cagney and Lacey which prompted a well-deserved kick in my ass. For the Millennials who probably have never heard of the 80’s “classic” Cagney and Lacey, consider yourself lucky. Anyways, I have often wondered why police films and shows remain popular with the public, especially considering the current anti-police sentiment that appears to be nationwide. The same people who cry about the violence captured on dash cam video in real life were cheering for Det. Sipowicz when he slapped a suspect during an interrogation back on NYPD Blue. They trade high-fives when Bruce Willis empties clip after clip into bad guys as an off-duty police officer. If these actions were captured on a dash-cam video wide-scale protests would erupt. A new study sheds some light on this paradox.
The research paper, “Citizen Journalism and Public Cynicism Toward Police in the United States,” which is currently under peer review for publication in an academic journal, describes how watching cell phone footage of a use-of-force incident on social media is more likely to generate negative feelings toward the police than watching the same encounter on a conventional TV broadcast.
In the study, the volunteer participants were 93 college students, most (92%) younger than 25, most (71%) female, and most (63%) African-American. They first were given an 18-question “cynicism survey” to measure their baseline of “mistrust and lack of confidence” in four occupational groups: physicians, professors, attorneys, and police. Even at the outset, the results of this “paper-and-pencil” questionnaire showed that the participants on the whole “felt more negatively toward police than toward the other groups.”
Then the participants were randomly assigned to watch one of two versions of a real-life videoed encounter in Kansas in which two municipal officers are down on the grass beside a thoroughfare, struggling with a male subject.
Version #1 consists of raw footage taken with a cell phone by a “Citizen Video Journalist” and posted on YouTube. The action is shot from a distance and details of the struggle are hard to make out, but it’s clear that the subject is thrusting his leg and trying to break free. An officer can be heard telling him to “relax” and “get your foot down.”
The cameraman yells at the subject, “Come on, guy! Quit moving, man! They’re gonna f***in’ kill you, bro. Quit moving!” After 36 seconds, the film ends with the struggle still underway. No explanation is given about the circumstances or the ultimate outcome.
Version #2, originally shown hours later, is a 2 min. 28 sec. clip from a TV newscast about the incident, produced by professional journalists at a local NBC affiliate. Cell phone footage from the conflict is incorporated, but the reporter provides context. The subject, she explains, was initially pulled over for a traffic violation and proved to have an outstanding warrant. When officers tried to handcuff him, he broke loose and was then taken to the ground. Dash cam footage is included showing this occur. A supervisor from the officers’ department is interviewed, explaining why officers behaved as they did and emphasizing that they were “very professional” and “did what they had to do to get the individual into custody.”
After experiencing one or the other of these versions, the study subjects then took the “cynicism test” again and were also asked if they thought the officers involved committed misdemeanor assault (intentionally, wantonly, or recklessly causing physical injury).
After thoroughly analyzing the data, the researchers confirmed that there was a significant difference in cynicism regarding police between the group that viewed the unfiltered social media posting and those who saw the professional broadcast. In the baseline testing, “the level of cynicism was fairly equal” between the two viewing groups. But after seeing the respective videos, the average level of cynicism and mistrust among the group that saw the social media footage significantly “increased, while the cynicism score for the broadcast media group decreased slightly” from their pre-viewing levels, the study reports.
In addition, “a greater percentage of the participants in the social media group felt that the officers committed misdemeanor assault than did participants in the mainstream video group,” the researchers write. “Of the 93 participants, 33 (35.5%) reported that they believed the officers violated [the criminal] statute, 26 of whom were in the social media group and 8 of whom were in the broadcast media group.”
The study cautions that given society’s technological trend and the “media exposure explosion,” there must be concern not only with what is being viewed by the public and how police are portrayed but how information is delivered to citizen consumers. “Social media is becoming an integral part of how information is presented to the public,” the researchers note. “Raw citizen videos of police actions have added a new dimension to the scrutiny of police behavior. “By creating a greater understanding of how cynicism develops…we can focus on a direction that is conducive to reducing the negative reinforcers that may contribute to the overall effectiveness in the criminal justice system.”
One of the biggest things I took from the study was that context was an important factor influencing people’s opinions of a given situation. The more people know about the dynamics surrounding the use of force situation, the greater the likelihood that the public will be more accepting of the officer’s decision to use force. It is irresponsible for media outlets to publish video that has been edited to eliminate context and depicts only the most inflammatory images. We can’t control what is produced by the media but we can only hope that journalistic integrity will recognize the importance of providing context to its broadcasts, especially those involving the use of force by a police officer which will always be more complex than a clip of a video.