During a peaceful exchange with Black Lives Matter activists, an Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy in California was caught on camera pulling out his phone to soundtrack the interaction with Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.”
Perhaps the most unusual part of all of this was the officer’s relative candor about it. When the deputy was asked on camera why he suddenly felt the urge to begin playing music his response was pointed: “You can record all you want, I just know it can’t be posted on YouTube.” A sherriff’s office spokesperson has said the officer did not violate any specific policy and referred to the officer’s actions as “a terrible mistake” and merely a “game with activists.”
The idea, familiar to police, is that YouTube’s filters will detect copyrighted content and prohibit its uploading to the site. Facebook and other social media platforms similarly prohibit sharing copyrighted materials like recorded music without a license. Never mind that body-worn camera footage from the Alameda County Sheriff’s office is already available on YouTube. In the video the deputy can clearly be seen wearing a body-worn camera on his chest.
An unsettling trend in law enforcement is occurring whereby police officers are weaponizing copyrighted music to thwart bystander recordings of police from going viral. It is not a mistake or a game but a growing police tactic.
Earlier this year, a police officer with the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD) was similarly accused of playing music from his phone to prevent another peaceful encounter from being shared on social media. The citizen was interacting with the officer to file a form to gain access to body-worn camera footage from an encounter he had with a Beverly Hills police officer. The BHPD rolled out body-worn cameras in 2019. BHPD footage is also available on YouTube.
The weaponization of copyrighted music by police raises important questions and underscores some serious concerns regarding police transparency, a primary rationale given by law enforcement for body cameras.
First, if police officers are engaging in such tactics during mundane situations, will they also use them during violent encounters? Imagine if the officers who stood guard as Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd had played music on their phones during the incident.
Second, could copyrighted content caught on body-worn camera prohibit or restrict the sharing of footage with the public? During the recent encounter with the Alameda County Sheriff’s officer, the deputy can be seen removing his phone from his pants pocket, turning on Taylor Swift, and then placing his phone in his breast pocket near his body camera and police radio.
Music in such situations might unnecessarily interfere with police communications, like an officer speaking into their microphone, hearing dispatch, or may even possibly render the officer’s voice unintelligible in body-worn camera footage, thereby diminishing transparency. Moreover, transparency might be further threatened should police have to remove (due to copyright concerns) audio portions of video to allow for the footage to be publicly shared.
Police officers playing music to stop viral videos is also somewhat bizarre given that police continue to fervently insist that body cameras are necessary to support transparency and document the police version of events such as countering false accusations of misconduct. If anything, police should encourage the public to record encounters since this will lead to increased transparency.
The police tactic of playing copyrighted music to stop the sharing of bystander videos is the opposite of transparency. Police departments that are genuinely concerned with transparency should publicly call upon their officers to cease such tactics and immediately implement disciplinary policies to prohibit the practice.
Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016).