I’d like to start with an exercise. First, take a deep breath in and out to help ground yourself. Think about a time when you felt safe. Where are you? Who do you see? Can you hear anything? Smell anything? Paint the details stroke by stroke until the picture becomes clear in your mind. Maybe you see a friend, teacher, or a family member; perhaps you see a place, like your bedroom or homeland. Through my work as a media activist, for years I have facilitated and participated in this exercise many times, in many places, with people of varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Not once has anyone ever included a police officer in their image of safety.
As the U.S. program manager at the human rights organization WITNESS, part of my job involves training communities to document abuses by state actors like police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use for evidence and advocacy. We’re seeing in real time how critical that documentation is in exposing law enforcement abuses at both the state and federal level, galvanizing people to pour into the streets in support of Black lives, and combating false reports about protesters and victims of police violence. But in the same way that we’re using cell phone cameras, storytelling, and social media to share the truth and keep ourselves safe, many police departments are also using these tools to depict themselves as kind, heroic, fun-loving community members whose niceness can outweigh the actions of a few “bad apples.” This is called copaganda.
Sometimes copaganda is created by police officers themselves, like this country music video released by the Metro Nashville Police Department that features Sergeant Henry Particelli singing with his guitar as people held signs that read “Peace” and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” That police department and many others around the country are turning to social media posts to help counter negative narratives and boost images, like this one, where white police officers pose with a Black child holding a Black Lives Matter sign, or this one from Austin, which shows police officers with all the thank-you mail they claimed to have received from members of the community. Other times, social media videos of police officers kneeling, hugging protesters, or posts of them offering snacks and their tears to little Black girls and boys, as the fearful children shake and cry, are promoted by the general public, and even allies and activists. The focus of these videos is supposed to be on the kind nature of individual police officers, but it’s important to remember that each friendly officer also has a gun on their hip and holds qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that, as explained by The Appeal, can effectively shield officials like police from accountability for misconduct, such as when they use excessive force. Take, for example, the Ohio “dancing cop,” a white police officer who went viral in 2015 for a video in which he danced outside with Black children. That officer was investigated and eventually cleared, in 2019, after body camera footage surfaced of him punching a Black man in the face.