In the last few years, it has become socially acceptable to bash law enforcement in public and on social media. Community members take to Facebook, the Twittersphere and public venues to voice their displeasure with the police, blaming law enforcement for every imaginable ill of society. The fact that individuals can hide behind their keyboards provides a cloak of anonymity when they stir up anti-police sentiment. But even in public, people are not shy about expressing negative feelings toward police, such as the customer who reported feeling “uncomfortable” in the presence of six uniformed officers drinking coffee in a Starbucks in Tempe, Arizona on July 4, 2019.
Now New Yorkers have developed a fun new way to show contempt for police: Pour buckets of water on New York Police Department officers as they go about doing their jobs. And for more amusement, throw the bucket at an officer while he’s making an arrest and hit him in the head with it. The viral videos that chronicle these dousing incidents have inspired more community members to engage in the rollicking good times, and the videos multiply.
The summer of 2019 has seen a heatwave and a blackout in New York. New York City is always humid because of its proximity to the ocean, and when temperatures inch into the nineties, the “90-90” combination of ninety-plus degrees and ninety-percent humidity is miserable. Many neighborhoods lack swimming pools, and for as long as there have been fire hydrants, there have been local residents who open them so that people can cool off in the water—like running through a giant sprinkler. Sometimes the FDNY opens the hydrants so that the water can be released in a controlled manner for the enjoyment of residents. In the past, the NYPD has even gotten into the act, with officers agreeing to be doused with water in an effort to build community relations.
LACK OF SUPPORT FOR POLICE
The July 2019 incidents of showering police officers performing their duties are not part of that scenario. Sgt. Det. Squad Supervisor Bill Decker (Ret.) of the NYPD says, “Now that community members are throwing water on cops, those days are gone. No more officers will voluntarily participate in a wetting-down. The punks who are engaging in this behavior have seen to that.”
The fact that there is little more than rote remarks denigrating the behavior of those dousing officers with water is an indicator of how acceptable police-bashing has become. Even mainstream media reporters are contributing to this contempt. In the July 22, 2019, issue of the New York Daily News, reporters Thomas Tracy, Rocco Parascandola and John Annese penned a story about the water incidents in which they use loaded language to portray the affected officers as cowards.
One of the viral videos shows community members repeatedly dumping buckets of water on two officers, who, instead of reacting in anger or retaliation, embody dignity as they calmly leave the scene. The Daily News story indicates that in the “[h]umiliating incident,” “the attacked officers refused to confront their tormentors” and “walk[ed] away sheepishly.” No mention is made of the fact that the wet officers had to continue their shifts with their synthetic-blend uniforms steaming in the heat and humidity, their discomfort exacerbated by their vests and the weight of their equipment. Nothing was written about the fact that the officers declined to even arrest the people who dumped water on them repeatedly, let alone the fact that the officers engaged in no violent or retaliatory behavior.
Decker explains that arresting the troublemakers is an option, but not one for which the officers would receive much support. “The punks dumping water on the cops could be arrested for OGA [obstructing governmental administration], and they could get thirty days—but they wouldn’t even get that, in reality. The DA doesn’t want to see arrests for any crimes with penalties under sixty days.” He adds that the DA’s thinking behind this is “There are murderers and people committing serious crimes out there, and you’re bringing me an OGA?”
He acknowledges that some officers might choose to make an arrest anyway. “I would have arrested those guys, and so would the people I served with. But the new generation of cops is different,” he says a bit sadly.
Every generation shakes its head at the way the next generation does things, but Decker has a point about NYPD officers. In the couple of years following 9/11, the NYPD became a very young department collectively, as there was a talent drain, with a tremendous number of experienced, retirement-eligible officers leaving. NYPD pensions are based on the amount of money, including overtime, that an officer earns just prior to retirement, and no officer was ever going to make more overtime than in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Decker paints the younger officers as people who took the first government job with benefits they could get—which happened to be the NYPD—in nostalgic contrast to the calling that he and his peers felt toward police work. But he acknowledges that the officers’ lack of action is not attributable only to their youth or employment circumstances. He cites a lack of support for officers from the department and the mayor, as well as the public, which has formed a perfect storm resulting in a concern officers have of potential consequences for fully performing their duties.
On August 2, 2019, the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association issued a press release that encourages sergeants to call the duty captain during any incident that involves even minimal force, the hidden subtext a reference to the water-dousing incidents: “One Police Plaza [NYPD headquarters] does not have your back—so we must consider if writing a summons or making a quality of life arrest is worth risking your career, your pension, your family’s well-being, your own mental health?”
NEGATIVITY IN THE TWITTERSPHERE
On July 29, 2019, three weeks after the Starbucks customer could not endure the discomfort of seeing six uniformed police officers drinking coffee in the Tempe coffee shop, the Tempe Police Department took a lot of heat over a “positive ticketing” campaign. A news outlet incorrectly reported that Tempe Police Department officers were planning to make vehicle stops to reward safe behavior with Circle K drink coupons.
People took to social media to express fears of Fourth Amendment violations and of being forced to prove citizenship (“show their papers”) during an unwarranted detention. Det. Kevin Bacon of the Tempe Police Department’s Media Relations Unit says that the message that the PD was always intending to have only consensual conversations with community members about safety issues was broadcast by all the local media outlets shortly after the erroneous information was released. The television station that made the error corrected it on air and on social media, and the Tempe police chief also Tweeted the facts about the campaign.
However, the negative Tweets made in response to the bad information fed off each other, and the rhetoric about police intentions to violate individuals’ rights continued showing up on social media. While the concerns about Fourth Amendment issues are valid, Bacon acknowledges, “If you look at the Tweets, a lot of the people posting about that do not even live in this area.”
Bacon points out that the department garners a great deal of positive feedback from the public overall. “After the Starbucks incident, we received a lot of social media support,” he says. “People from all over the country, as well as from the local community, took to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with lots of support. There were messages saying ‘Thank you for what you do.’ We see a lot of community members showing appreciation for our cops,” he adds.
In Tempe’s neighbor city, Glendale, Ariz., the Glendale Police Department has received positive media coverage for police officers’ actions. But it’s difficult to get officers to agree to talk with reporters about their good deeds, says Public Information Officer Sgt. John Roth. The police officers aren’t comfortable in the spotlight discussing actions they consider to be just good community policing.
However, the Glendale PD also suffered from negative media coverage, when, in 2017, video was posted on social media showing officers using a Taser during a traffic stop. The department is involved in a 2018 federal lawsuit over excessive force and civil rights violations stemming from that incident.
According to Roth, positive media attention is complicated by the fact that every time a positive story goes out, there are some individuals on social media who bring up negative issues that have nothing to do with the current story. “Trolls light the fire on social media,” he says. “In response to a positive account of police actions, these people will say, ‘But what about the Taser incident?’”
These negative posts are another reason why cops are reluctant to speak with reporters, even for positive stories, he adds.
TWITTER TROLLS ‘RULE THE MASSES’
SDS Decker of the NYPD says that it has become acceptable to bash cops for a variety of reasons. Media accounts of the number of minorities affected by police-involved shootings is one reason—although he points out that only in the fine print can one find the statistics showing that more white community members have lost their lives than African Americans in these situations.
“There are bad cops,” he acknowledges. “They should be disciplined; they should be fired; they should not be allowed to wear the uniform. But they are not the majority. Most cops are out there every day doing a hard job and doing it well,” he adds.
But sensation sells, and “Man Bites Dog” has always been a more compelling headline than “Dog Bites Man.” In the same vein, accounts of the unusual or the one-off—the police officer not performing the job properly—will make headlines over an everyday story that could be titled “Officer Takes Suspect into Custody with Absolutely No Incident.” And reporters and columnists have opinions like everyone else. If they’re anti-police, they have a huge forum through which they can spread their ideas.
Likewise, in the age of social media, when everybody is a publisher, a photographer and a videographer, anyone and everyone can share their opinions. Those who gather large followings on social media—who become “influencers”—can spread their messages widely. The negative messages, like the negative mainstream media stories, are always quicker to gain the spotlight than the positive ones.
“Anybody can rule the masses with a hashtag and a post that triggers emotional responses,” Roth points out.
Decker also highlights mob mentality as part of the reason anti-police stories gain traction. “Look at those idiots throwing water on cops,” he says. “They get their fifteen seconds of fame on social media, and all of a sudden, everyone thinks it’s a great idea to dump buckets of water on police.”
“Law enforcement is a symbol of authority, and we’re accessible,” Roth adds. “A respect for authority begins with parents and how children are raised.”
He illustrates the difficulties of instilling such respect by discussing incidents in which disrespectful kids call 911 on their parents, who are in most cases just trying to discipline the child. “The police department gives the kids what they want. Officers document the incident, and now mom and dad carry the ‘suspect’ title.”
“I think the majority of people respect the police,” Bacon opines. “But the stories that are reported don’t always reflect that.”
Decker also blames a lack of critical thinking for some of the cop-bashing. “Do you think those people are thinking for even a second about the repercussions of their actions? No way,” he answers his own question. “If they thought, they wouldn’t do it. Or they would express their opinions civilly and rationally.”
For the time being, while there is an element of anti-police feeling, and while social media provides a forum for its expression, the only way to combat it is for law enforcement to continue engaging in community policing, using social media to communicate important and positive information to the community and partnering with the media.
“Pick up the phone when reporters call,” Bacon says. “Do station visits. Meeting with media outlets is crucial.”
In Bacon’s view, the role of the public information officer is critical to fair treatment and positive coverage in the media. And police departments, no less than Nike or Apple, need to maintain good relationships with reporters.
“PIOs represent the brand,” Bacon says. “Be responsive to the media.”