How reality TV complicates the debate over what happens to cop cam footage

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“Is anyone here like me,” the late comedian Bill Hicks used to ask his crowds in the mid-1990s, “in that they are compelled, obsessed and drawn beyond their will to watch the show Cops every f*****g night?” After being met with uproarious applause, Hicks would exclaim: “Am I not alone?” 

Hicks knew he could expect a positive response because Cops, a show featuring a film crew that follows various patrol teams in U.S. cities, was insanely popular in the 1990s. The Fox show has regularly offered footage of robberies, assaults, gang shootouts, and drunks to millions of viewers for over 25 years, still alive today at its new home on Spike TV.

As Hicks’ bit is supposed to display, the show was an early version of a now familiar guilty pleasure, feeding the voyeuristic instinct that permeates so much of reality television today. It’s an inherently exploitative program that preys on the drama of people at their absolute weakest, disproportionately shaming the poor while enabling a view of police that encourages a lack of respect for suspects and victims alike. It works to confirm the worst pearl-clutching stereotypes about the urban poor and profits handsomely for doing so.

It’s a bit of a shock to see a sudden layer of sensitivity about who can and cannot watch the footage captured by police body cameras.

This is why it’s a bit of a shock to see a sudden layer of sensitivity about who can and cannot watch the footage captured by police body cameras. In the wake of questionable police actions against unarmed black men across the country—most recently the mysterious death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the ensuing riots—body cameras are being widely implemented across American police departments, equipment with a proven track record of keeping officers and citizens on their best behavior. 

Because the cameras capture footage of the most vulnerable and traumatic moments in a person’s life—the same kind of footage Cops has been marketing since the first Bush administration—legislators are raising serious and valid questions about how to handle the tapes while retaining their original purpose. “Officials in more than a dozen states,” as the Washington Post reports, “have proposed restricting access or completely withholding the footage from the public, citing concerns over privacy and the time and cost of blurring images that identify victims, witnesses or bystanders caught in front of the lens.”

Unlike Cops, a simple digitizing of the faces caught on camera will not do for most departments. While most court documents can simply redact private information before releasing it to the public, there is no easy way to comb through the hours and hours of footage a typical department might capture in a given day and scrub it for any scrap of information someone would want to keep private. 

The Seattle Police Department has taken perhaps the most promising approach, uploading filtered previews of every piece of footage to YouTube. The sound is largely muffled and images are so filtered each police encounter looks like the negative of a Ralph Bakshi film, but any viewer can get the gist of what is occurring (such as this video showing two officers pulling over a suspect, guns drawn, then calmly cuffing the suspect).

It’s a curious question that, absent a solution, puts at risk the usefulness of body cameras in recording police reactions. But why this high level of scrutiny when a venerable institution in this country has violated the very principle of privacy for decades? 

But why this high level of scrutiny when a venerable institution in this country has violated the very principle of privacy for decades? 

Cops has a lengthy history of coercing victims and perps into signing release forms and employing their own minimal level of censorship when that permission is denied. Why can the show abuse its privilege in such a broad way while police departments need to handle such information with the care it deserves?

The most important distinction is legal: Public agencies like police departments must behave within public records law, which often demand the full redacting of private information needless to a particular case. If a document or detail is not released by the court, anyone can file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain said information upon approval by a judge. It’s a fear of FOIA requests that has state legislatures ready to exempt body camera footage from such laws. 

But if the conduct of the department itself is in question (as has been the case too often of late), could officers withhold tapes under the guise of protecting privacy when they’re really just protecting themselves?

The other difference between the cameras and Cops is who’s doing the taping. As a society, we tend not to mind when private interests violate our privacy. We don’t really care that Amazon is following us around the Web, compiling massive amounts of user information to better predict what you’d like to buy next. The general public doesn’t much mind that Facebook collects data like a voluntary Big Brother, even listening in through your smartphone’s mic to further penetrate your life. 

The other difference between the cameras and Cops is who’s doing the taping.

But when we learn of the National Security Agency’s invasive activities, or that Healthcare.gov might be interested in your data, we rightfully flip our lid. After all, Facebook can’t put you in jail.

Cops, however, can. Because the show survives on recordings from crime scenes, numerous episodes of the show have been used as evidence—in much the same way body cameras can be used. When Dalia Dippolito attempted to hire a hitman to kill her newlywed husband, she accused her husband of orchestrating the scheme to attract the attention of a Cheaters or Jersey Shore-style reality show. 

According to Dippolito’s defense team, the police department in Boynton Beach, Fla., even invited Cops along to help with the recordings. Despite questions about whether the event was “staged,” the footage earned her a 20-year-prison sentence for solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

On occasion, the camera crew following officers has become an integral aspect of the encounter. One incident in 1998 saw a camerawoman holding a suspect down for an injured officer. Another in 2009 saw a sound mixer helping police hold a man high on PCP while awaiting backup.

These blurred lines between evidentiary action by Cops and its existence as  entertainment should raise the same questions now confronting the issue of body cameras. As major police departments hope to avoid controversy over releasing the footage they capture, one could only wish they’d show such discretion when a television producer shows up. Many do—the deputy chief of the LAPD has famously criticized the show for its exploitation of police and victims

Until police departments can settle the space between law and entertainment, the level of care they’re showing body cameras could be contradicted by the lack of care they’ve shown Cops.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Unlisted Sightings/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.