When I was a teenager, some of the most memorable times with my father were spent sitting around the television on Saturday night and watching the show COPS. Some may call that a strange family gathering, but for us it was normal (and probably a way to keep me out of trouble on a Saturday night). I didn’t know it then but I was being recruited into this profession through the lens of a camera in a different city each week. What I saw was positive. The curtain of this fine profession was pulled back to reveal to all that watched that this was a way to make a difference in your community. Today, it’s all changed.
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It takes just a few minutes of any nightly news program to see that the positive images of law enforcement being portrayed to the viewers are all but gone. On a nightly basis, we are exposed to the latest body camera images of a use of force situation involving a police officer and a citizen. Context is given to us by the reporter, images of protests abound and so-called “experts” fill the air with why the cops are wrong. This will not change until we change it.
If our profession continues on its heels being pushed back by the placating politicians, a misleading media and misinformed activists, not only will we not convince the brightest of our children to join our ranks, our entire profession could be fighting to maintain any sort of resemblance of what it is today. Now is the time to act.
Video recorded by dashboard and body cameras changes our profession on many levels. While some could argue that officers may act differently on video, that has not been my experience; especially in a critical incident where the last thing an officer considers is a camera rolling. So, if behavior of officers remains the same, why is there so much outrage when videos are obtained by the media? It is because law enforcement agencies rarely are the ones giving the context for these videos. Reporters, so-called “experts,” politicians and just about anyone else who has no idea what the guidelines are in law enforcement and what the law says our boundaries are tell the public what they are watching.
Video is not going away, and in fact we are likely only a few years away from a time when the majority of what we do will be on film recorded either by us or citizens, so if you think the nightly news is bad now, wait a few years—unless we change how we handle video.
Law enforcement has millions of contacts with citizens every year and the vast majority of those contacts are professional. Most of those contacts show us in a very positive light and some of those show the citizens we encounter acting absolutely out of control. When others with bias dictate what videos are shown to the public or give an incorrect context for the videos, the true picture of American law enforcement is warped. That needs to change immediately. All contacts that can be legally released should be released. If those who hate cops want to search the thousands upon thousands of positive encounters to find their “gotcha” moment, let them—but the public and our profession deserves an accurate portrayal of this great profession.
The administrators reading this right now will shake their head and say it can’t be done. They will talk about cost and resources and bandwidth, but the true leaders out there will understand that for the sake of our profession it must be done. If technology is going to change our profession then it is up to us to change it for the better. The street cops know what I’m talking about. There was a fool yelling at you just last night and how great would it be to show America what you have to go through and how professional you are? The alternative is more lies, more misperceptions, more politicians speaking out of turn and more hatred against law enforcement. While there will always be that, let us at least give an accurate portrayal of what our men and women behind the badge do on a daily basis. They deserve it!
Travis Yates is a writer and editor at Law Officer. An ILEETA Trainer of the Year, his Seminars in Risk Management & Officer Safety have been taught across the United States & Canada. Major Yates is a current Doctoral Student in Strategic Leadership and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the Director of Training for Law Officer (www.lawofficer.com) and the Founder of the Courageous Leadership Institute (www.courageousleader.org), providing leadership consulting and training to law enforcement around the world.