This time, it’s Disney.
Around 11 p.m. on Monday in Santa Ana, a city just south of Los Angeles, a YouTuber with a channel called Santa Ana Audits started recording a group of police investigating a car theft in his neighborhood.
Suddenly, a police squad car started blasting “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the theme from the 1995 Disney classic Toy Story, in an apparent attempt to prevent video of the cops’ activity going online.
“Hey, he’s playing music,” the YouTuber said in Spanish. “Because he knows that on my [YouTube] channel, I can’t upload videos with music in them.”
For a few moments, the video shows red and blue lights flashing across the street, as we hear lyrics that recall the animated friendship of Buzz Lightyear and Woody:
When the road looks rough ahead / and you're miles and miles from your nice warm bed / you just remember what your old pal said / Boy, you've got a friend in me
This is yet another entry in a pattern of police playing copyrighted music while being filmed. Starting last year, cops have played Sublime and The Beatles in Beverly Hills, country music in Illinois, and Taylor Swift in Alameda County, California, in response to being recorded by civilians, in what is looking more and more like a collective attempt of police officers attempting to trick online platforms into auto-censoring videos of their actions.
As the Santa Ana video continues, we hear the music switch to “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” from Disney’s 2021 Encanto, then to “Reflection” from Mulan.
“You guys get paid to listen to music?” the YouTuber asks. The officers do not answer: instead, we hear the final refrain of the Mulan centerpiece ballad:
When will my reflection show / who I am inside?
The squad car’s audio system then switches to “Un Poco Loco” from Disney’s 2017 Coco.
Off camera, another resident can be heard complaining about the volume. “I’m trying to go to bed,” she says. She approaches the squad car, asking: “Can you turn the music down?”
The car speaker stops playing, but this is where things take a turn. A man named Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who just so happens to be a city councilmember in the Santa Ana ward where this is all taking place, also walks up to the squad car.
In an interview with VICE News, Hernandez explained that he lives about half a block away, and was getting ready for bed when he heard Disney music blasting outside. Concerned, he’d gone out to see what was going on.
At that point, a small crowd of residents had gathered, so Hernandez walked up to the officer who was running the impromptu Disney DJ set and asked why he was playing loud music.
“Why? Because it will be copyright infringement for him,” the officer says, pointing at the camera.
“So you’re using our resources that way?” Councilmember Hernandez says.
“No, I’m not using our resources. It’s my phone,” the officer replies.
“Do you know who I am?” Hernandez asks. The officer pauses, then says that he does recognize the city official — and his demeanor shifts.
“You’re not gonna conduct yourself like that in front of my neighbors,” Councilmember Hernandez continues. The officer apologizes to Hernandez, but Hernandez isn’t satisfied: “Apologize to him,” he says, motioning to the camera-holding YouTuber.
The officer, who is apparently familiar with the YouTuber, complies, calling him by name (though the YouTuber edited the mention of his own name out of the footage).
“My people live here, brother. Please treat them with respect,” Hernandez says to the officer. “There’s kids that need to go to school, there’s people that are working, and you chose to use our taxpayer dollars to disrespect a man with your music. That’s childish, sir.”
Throughout this entire conversation, the officer is still playing tunes, albeit now only through his cell phone speaker. Hernandez asks him again why he is playing Disney music, and the officer finally turns it off. Hernandez takes the officer aside for a moment to speak privately, and they eventually come back and shake hands. Hernandez then addresses the neighborhood residents who had gathered to watch what was going on, assuring them that the officers will respect them, and encourages them to return to their homes.
In a statement released via the department’s Twitter account, Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin stated that the department is “aware of a video that has surfaced involving one of [its] officers,” and “understand[s] the concerns as it relates to the video.”
In a statement given to VICE News, a Santa Ana PD spokesperson said that playing music while being filmed was not part of any department-recommended policy. When asked for the name of the music-playing officer, however, the spokesperson said they would not provide that information.
This incident is unique in a couple ways: previously, we’ve only seen police use their phone speakers to play music; this is the first time we’ve seen cops using the power of a squad car audio system to regale an entire neighborhood with Disney princess anthems.
Then, there’s the fact that this is the first time an officer has been caught in the act by a city official.
Councilmember Hernandez took this personally. He is relatively new to public office, having decided to run after seeing video of the murder of George Floyd. Then, only months after taking office, his cousin was killed in front of him by police, in an incident that the Mayor of Santa Ana compared to a “firing squad.”
Hernandez said his family is still seeking justice for his cousin’s death. “Thankfully there were people there who were recording, otherwise it would have been a very one-sided story,” he said. The idea that this might have been blocked with music, he says, is troubling.
Hernandez said that aside from the officer who was playing the music, he was disappointed in the several other officers who were on the scene. “They didn't stop him [from playing music],” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but we're at a point where these mistakes are systemic.”
Santa Ana PD’s Disney tactic falls into a pattern we’ve seen at other departments. This is actually the second time we have seen an officer directly admit, on camera, that they are attempting to use music to effectively censor videos. (In the case of Illinois, the cop who was being filmed even submitted a written report saying that he had been “recently advised” to “turn on some music” in such an event.)
As VICE News has reported in the past, playing music will not necessarily get a video ‘banned’ online. In the case of YouTube, if the algorithm detects copyrighted music in a video, YouTube could take the video down, but it also might just place an ad on the video, with revenue going to the copyright holders.
Either way, the Santa Ana video is still online, Disney melodies and all. As in other cases, the Santa Ana cop seems to have a rather tenuous understanding of how online copyright policies actually work – but it is becoming more clear that there is at the very least a collective expectation among police that music might provide an algorithmic shield against the public eye.
In particular, it’s telling that he opted for Disney music. Unless the SAPD are huge fans of kids’ cartoon soundtracks, it seems most likely that they may have assumed that Disney — which is not at all shy about suing people for infringing on its IP — would provide some protection against civilian cameras.
As shaken as Hernandez was, he was able to find some dark humor in the situation.
“I noticed that they were playing songs from Coco and Encanto. Those were movies that Disney had used to bridge to the Latino community. Then the police used that to try to silence us,” he said, laughing quietly. "Pretty ironic."
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