Last month, Sergeant David Shelby, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Department officer, was caught playing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” from his phone as he was being filmed by activists, in a move he said was done “so that you can’t post on YouTube.” The incident was the latest in a bizarre trend in which police officers play copyrighted music while they are being filmed by the public, in hopes of triggering social media antipiracy filters, which would theoretically get the video deleted.
In at least four instances, this move has backfired by drawing massive attention to the offending cop, leading all of us to wonder what the hell they were thinking. Now, we know that the officers’ colleagues are thinking the same. New emails and documents obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Shelby's superiors and colleagues in the Alameda County Police Department were pissed and embarrassed by his attempt at censoring the public—and it was such a debacle, they revised rules for officers about they can use cell phones on duty.
"WHYYYYYY?," Miguel Campos, another Alameda County officer, wrote in an email to two colleagues that includes a link to a news story about Shelby’s impromptu Taylor Swift session.
The same day, Alameda County Sheriff’s Department public information officer and bomb technician Ray Kelly wrote to command staff: "Could we push this out to our team supervisors and conduct some muster training. The agency is receiving some backlash and national media attention. This tactic is seen negatively by the community and is problematic for us."
Another officer replied that she'd sent lieutenants a separate email, and added, "Protected rights are a thing! We must never let our protection of laws override those protections. Also, if there is any uncertainty about what should be done....ask!"
As the link to the video and news coverage spread around the police department, sheriffs reacted, including "SERIOUSLY!!!??" and "Ugh."
Yet another colleague wrote, "Goes without saying that we will not be doing this when interacting with the public. We are constantly recorded during our public interactions, with some limited exemptions, so lets maintain our composure and professionalism. Especially if T-Swift is the first favorite song on your play list..." and another replied, "Stay professional and don't play Taylor Swift!!! Unreal..."
In an email sent July 12 to sheriffs on the police force, Sergeant Roberto Morales wrote, "Gentlemen, Let's be smart out there. Who cares if the public records us. If we are doing the right thing for the right reasons, we will always finish on top. We do not need this type of media coverage. Lets not be YouTube famous or even worse Media Famous.”
The documents also include a set of general guidelines for officers on social media and networking use; the guidelines were updated on July 23 to include phrasing that forbids this sort of video and audio streaming while on duty. The guidelines state:
"Agency members shall not, purposefully and knowingly, use or broadcast any copyrighted body of work in a manner that will adversely impact the level of professionalism, performance, conduct and productivity that is expected of a peace officer or professional staff member," and "Copyrighted work shall not be used in a manner as to limit the public’s ability to exercise their First Amendment rights as set fourth [sic] in the United States Constitution."
In the last few months, cops across the country have been trying this cute little trick for keeping their interactions with the public off social media: Playing pop songs over interactions with the public when they're being filmed. One Beverly Hills cop played Sublime’s "Santeria" when he realized he was being live-streamed in February and another with the Beatles' "Yesterday," and another in Illinois tried it with Blake Shelton’s “Nobody But You" in March.
They think that if the audio captured was smothered by a copyrighted song, posting it to sites like Instagram or YouTube would result in the poster getting smacked with a copyright takedown notice—and the platform would either remove the video, mute the audio, or ban the user altogether. In each of these cases, it didn't work, and the videos remained online. People have a First Amendment right to film the police.
Shelby tried it, but it didn't work: the video stayed up on the Anti Police-Terror Project channel, and now has almost 740,000 views.
Another set of guidelines about personal cellular device usage added the clause: "All sworn and professional personnel while on duty, are not permitted to access the internet to engage or participate in what is commonly referred to as social networking, shopping, downloading media, streaming content, or using any other website that is not used for official Agency purposes."