Normally, YouTube is no place to inspire faith in law enforcement.
A single search for “police conduct” is a doorway into a relentless reel of cops punching old ladies, killing dogs, kicking pregnant women, serving nobody, protecting only themselves. Earlier this month, a Montreal officer was filmed threatening to tie a homeless man to a pole for an hour in the freezing cold.
Within that online barrage of images, a pair of courteous Canadian cops have caused a worldwide stir with their inadvertent appearance in a YouTube clip entitled “Honest Cops.” Filmed in an apparent attempt to embarrass the officers, the video has had the opposite effect, generating international praise for two Hamilton constables and offering a vivid example of how front-line officers are modifying everything from how they cuff suspects to where they grab lunch in the age of the camera-phone.
“We’ve been talking to our people about the presence of video for years now,” said Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire of the video, which has drawn more than two million hits on YouTube and attracted more than 2,000 notes of praise to the force from around the world. “This was just a phenomenal piece of police work, exactly what we’re training our people to do and what we do every day.”
The clip begins with constables Mark Morelli and Chantelle Wilson struggling with a screaming young woman on a strip-mall sidewalk. A man filming the scene begins lecturing the police on the law and telling them to let her go because “you know she’s a girl, you know she’s weak.”
The officers ignore him and gently wrestle the young woman into a cruiser. After he catches his breath, Constable Morelli embarks on an eloquent three-minute explanation of why the arrest was justified.
“I’m doing my best, ma’am, not to hurt that girl,” he explains to one antagonistic onlooker. “Our mandate is to effect arrests while doing the minimum amount of damage possible and that’s what I tried to do. While it may appear to be very rough to you, I apologize to you for having to see that.”
The constable’s relative comfort in front of the camera might seem unique alongside so many brutal YouTube examples of officers acting as if nobody is watching, but the unblinking eye of iPhone video has become as much a part of the job as bad coffee and excessive paperwork.
“We’re in a different world now,” said Calgary Police Superintendent Kevan Stuart. “I think every citizen has lost some privacy with the prevalence of video technology and our officers are no different.”
Carleton University PhD candidate and researcher Gregory Brown surveyed 231 front-line officers in Ottawa and Toronto for his thesis, The Thin Blue Line on Thin Ice: Police Use of Force in the Era of Cameraphones, ‘Citizen Journalism’ and YouTube, and found that 94 per cent of respondents recognized that they had been filmed at some point by a member of the public. On average, each officer said they were aware of being videotaped 17 times.
“One focus of my thesis is if you’re going to beat on someone for no reason or use excessive force in this day and age, you will probably be exposed,” said Mr. Brown, a retired detective-sergeant with the Ottawa police. “Most officers now have a good education, they’re not stupid, they know if they beat someone they’ll be on 20 or 30 videos.”
That collective realization is changing how police act. Half of the officers who responded to Mr. Brown’s survey said they resort to physical force less often today than in the past – largely out of concern they’ll be caught on a recording. Of those who use force, half said they have become gentler since the mass arrival of camera-phones.
Of course, police can be shamed for more than an overzealous use of knuckles. One officer told Mr. Brown that he used to enjoy a coffee and a doughnut halfway through his shift. “He doesn’t do that any more because of the risk of pulling into a Tim Hortons and being videoed,” Mr. Brown said. “Who wants to be the guy on the front of the newspaper with doughnut powder dripping down his uniform?”
Officers working in Toronto’s Entertainment District said they have become more wary of speaking with women. Others told Mr. Brown they do anything they can to avoid falling asleep in public after a particularly exhausting shift, lest they be filmed.
“A lot of the officers said the same refrain: Who wants to be the next Officer Bubbles?” Mr. Brown said, referring to Adam Josephs, the Toronto Police constable who has been viewed millions of times on YouTube threatening a G20 protester with an assault charge for blowing bubbles. “Once it’s recorded it’s there forever. One misjudgment and it could be the end of your career.”
There are obvious drawbacks to emphasizing kinder, gentler police tactics. If officers are too preoccupied with how they look on film, they could be hesitant to use the force necessary to protect themselves or maintain public safety. Police trainers call these “intrusive thoughts.” They can be deadly, short-circuiting decision-making in crucial moments.
As for the detailed justification Constable Morelli provided to hostile bystanders, most top cops wouldn’t recommend it.
“They are responsible to explain themselves to supervisors, to this service and to courts, where we’re held to account for the work we do,” Chief De Caire said. “There’s nothing to hide in policing, but in the future we won’t be asking officers to do that or changing the policy.”
Some sort of evolution is inevitable. Public faith in police has plunged by more than 50 per cent over the past 15 years, according to a 2012 Angus Reid poll. The wild popularity of Hamilton’s “Honest Cops” suggests one way of reversing the trend.
“The public is far more skeptical of police,” Mr. Brown said. “I think you could view the Hamilton arrest as a model for how officers should conduct themselves now.”