Public Relations and the Velvet Glove of Policing

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In a semester that hit the ground running with discussions of the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, James Boyd and others at the hands of police, it was with great joy that I brought news of London, Kentucky’s Officer Justin Roby’s altruistic act into the classroom.  Officer Roby used his discretion and bought baby formula for a single father caught shoplifting it rather than taking him to jail. He explained how as a father he could relate to the man’s predicament. The story was widely shared on social media sites like Huffington Post and made national news like CBS, FOX, etc. Next week, I will mention Deputy Casey Caudill from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office just a few miles further up the road. Caudill, responding to a report of a grass fire, found a homeless man attempting to stay warm.  Instead of making the decision to arrest he took the man a county away and gave him money for dinner.

Caudill’s action could surely be critiqued on a certain level by those familiar with King and Dunn’s (2004) concept of police-initiated transjurisdictional transport (PITT), but I suspect that overall the general response to his decision in this situation is a positive one.  These stories, and their propensity to go viral, may tell us a great deal about public perception of the “ought of policing” in America.

In the wake of all of the bad news related to the police institution in the US, it’s nice to hear some uplifting and positive stories of individual officers protecting and serving in such ways.  Much like Tom Waits, “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.”  The thousands of comments that rain admiration and support on these officers and express a sort of public sentiment that “this is what police SHOULD do” and/or “if we only had more officers like these” provide an important addition to the ongoing discussion about what police should NOT do.

Still, with my educational background in sociology and criminal justice, it is difficult for me to draw too much inspiration from these accounts.  Anecdotal evidence would be the charge from many of my mentors, and I’d have to agree.  Regardless, it begs the question (that I hear from undergraduate students every semester): “But what about the good things police do?” Often, this question is accompanied by an informal analysis of the “if it bleeds it leads” nature of news media. The idea being that public opinion of police is lower than perhaps it should be due to the fact that the media only bring us the bad news.  Brutality, misconduct, killings and corruption make for far better headlines and ratings than random acts of kindness.  Or at least that is the assumption.

But, is it so?

Do the media tend to focus on police negatives to the detriment of positives?  Much research seems to indicate that although the relationship between the police and newsmakers is sometimes tenuous that more often than not it is a positive one.  Police benefit from the power to help craft narratives on crime and criminal justice.  Even in situations where officers kill citizens the resulting coverage generally gives the benefit of the doubt (and often the first and last word) to police or their representatives (Chibnall, 1975; Hirschfield and Simon, 2010; Mawby, 2010).

In fact, with major investments in public relations by major city police departments it is the police side of the story that usually predominates. That’s easy to understand. Reporters are given packets on an almost daily basis explaining and justifying the “official story” and steering media attention to issues the police wish to raise. Individual citizens have no such power to plead their side of the story. In addition, cutbacks to news divisions by media corporations means that corporate news is more dependent than ever on pre-packaged “stories” from state sources and occasionally NGOS.

To quote another late modern bard, Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  Perhaps an exception to the rule can be seen in social media.  Activist organizations critical of police violence, misconduct and corruption such as Cop Block, Filming Cops, and others have hundreds of thousands of subscribers to Facebook and Twitter feeds that broadcast the latest bad news in the world of American policing (Cop Block has over 1.4 million “likes” on Facebook as of this blog).

Whether or not good news or bad news predominates either the old or new forms of American news media is beyond the scope of this blog.  However, the utility of good news in policing will hopefully provide some way to conclude.  Is it possible, for example, that reports of Officers like Justin Roby and Casey Caudill going viral could create a sort of contagion effect?  Might we see more examples of similar situations in the news soon?

Call it “copycat criminal justice.”

Perhaps police officers might exercise such discretion in order to reap the rewards that come along with being clickbait and/or YouTube famous.  Which makes for fun philosophical discussion of whether doing the right thing for the wrong reason is still the right thing, I suppose.  Still, if random acts of police kindness multiplied along with tweets, likes or shares of such situations, I for one would be inclined to help spread the good word.

Then again, perhaps this good news does more harm than good?  In a historical context where national level political action, discourse and analysis is focused on issues of police violence and repression might these anecdotes be the equivalent of the “not all men” trope where conversations of patriarchy and sexism are concerned?  The historical analysis of American policing titled The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove by Crime and Social Justice Associates (1982) described how public service programs and functions that legitimate police enable them to increase the level of violent repression in society. They refer to such programs and functions as the velvet glove of policing, which can help to hide the underlying iron fist that represents the repressive nature of the institution.

According to killedbypolice.net, at least 110 people have been killed by police so far this year. In response to calls for civilian oversight, St. Louis police have threatened work slowdowns similar to those implemented by the NYPD in the aftermath of the killings of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley. Instead of enacting the kinds of reasonable and necessary reforms demanded by concerned citizens in New York City, the NYPD has instead unveiled plans to police protest with machine guns and to raise the charge for resisting arrest to a felony.  Iron fist, indeed.

As stated above, “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.”  In order for that to happen, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve got to make it rain.”  Perhaps good news on American policing is about to run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream? If so, I hope that it is a reflection of a new reality and not simply another velvet glove.

Carl Root
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

References

Chibnall, S. (1975). The Crime Reporter: A Study in the Production of Commercial Knowledge. Sociology, 9, 49-66.

Crime and Social Justice Associates. (2006). Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove. In The Police and Society: Touchstone Readings (3rd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Hirschfield, P., & Simon, D. (2010). Legitimating police violence: Newspaper Accounts of Deadly Force. Theoretical Criminology, 14(2), 155-182.

King, W., & Dunn, T. (2004). Dumping: Police-Initiated Transjurisdictional Transport of Troublesome Persons. Police Quarterly, 7(3), 339-358.

Mawby, R. (2010). Chibnall Revisited: Crime Reporters, the Police and ‘Law-and-Order News’ British Journal of Criminology, 50, 1060-1076.

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