Police are trying out a new tactic to prevent videos of misconduct from going viral.
Do you get nervous around police?
Is it because they carry guns and are rarely held accountable when they harass, harm, assault, or even kill people?
Yeah, that makes sense. But the good news is there's a way to tip the scales — at least a little bit — toward a more comfortable balance of power, and it only requires you to take out your cell phone.
While police in many parts of the country are required to wear body cams that record their activity when they're on duty, those cameras are often mysteriously turned off at those times when civilians and police have violent interactions — and the two groups can never seem to agree about exactly what happened.
Fortunately, you have the right to record police officers interacting with members of the public — including yourself. And if you happen to catch footage of a cop behaving in a rude, corrupt, threatening, or violent manner, your video stands a chance of going viral, which is pretty much the only scenario where police actually tend to face consequences for misconduct.
For that reason, police often bristle at the fact that they're being filmed, but unless they have a reason to arrest you or a reason to believe that your phone/camera contains evidence of criminal activity — other than their own — they generally can't do anything to stop you. But thanks to our broken copyright system, they now have another option for undermining your first amendment rights — playing Taylor Swift's "Blank Space."
Cop Plays Taylor Swift to Prevent Video Sharing of Him Harassing Protesters www.youtube.com
That's the 2014 hit from 1989 that an Alameda County Sheriff's Sergeant Shelby chose to play this week during an encounter with activists from the Anti Police-Terror Project, during a protest at the courthouse in Oakland, California — though any popular music would have done the trick. The protest was in response to the April 2020 killing of 33-year-old Steven Taylor by San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher in an area Walmart.
Fletcher has been charged with voluntary manslaughter, and it was at his preliminary hearing on Tuesday that activists were hanging banners that Sergeant Shelby apparently took issue with. While the Anti Police-Terror Project's Policy Director, James Burch, and another activist spoke with Sergeant Shelby about where the group was and was not permitted to hang their banners, Sergeant Shelby took out his phone, and cued up Taylor Swift's voice singing, "Nice to meet you, where you been? / I could show you incredible things."
Obviously that didn't stop anyone from filming, but Shelby's purpose was sneakier. Because filming a confrontation with police only tends to make a difference if the footage goes viral...and for that to happen, the footage needs to be shared on social media...and if you post a video with "Blank Space" playing in the background, it's going to be flagged for a copyright violation.
In other words, if a cop is expecting to have a confrontation with a member of the public and thinks the optics probably won't be great — e.g. telling protesters how they're allowed to object to police violence — said cop can just hit play on Spotify, and a chart-topping hit will ensure that any video that gets posted online will be removed before the footage can go viral! As Sergeant Shelby put it, "You can record all you want, I just know it can't be posted to YouTube."
Fortunately, this is far from a fool-proof strategy. While copyright holders can choose to take down videos that contain their music, that's no longer the de facto response. Another option on YouTube is to monetize the video — placing an ad that pays the copyright holder.
In that case, a video of Sergeant Shelby blasting "Blank Space" at protesters could still go viral; it would just end up making Taylor Swift some extra gaint-birdcage money. Where it's more of an issue is with live streams, which are likely to be taken down when copyrighted music is playing — which is why Beverly Hills police officer Billy Fair played Sublime's Santeria at an activist who was streaming on Instagram in February.
This is clearly a growing tactic for police to limit their accountability in the public eye. Fortunately, in this case, it backfired, and the video of Shelby spread much more than it otherwise would have, prompting Sergeant Ray Kelly — a spokesman for the Alemeda County Sheriff's Office to decry the tactic — "This is not acceptable ... It's not a good look for us."
No doubt police will continue coming up with new strategies to avoid public scrutiny as activists work to push back against their impunity. But for the foreseeable future — in Alameda County at least — we can probably expect Taylor Swift to be left out of the equation.