When most big organizations screw up, they pay a PR firm to do damage control.
Police can usually count on everyday Americans to do some of that work for them, for free.
The years since the Ferguson unrest have given rise to a curious subgenre that we might call “Good Cop” content: After every high-profile incident of police brutality, social media has a surge of pictures and videos of police hugging or otherwise being friendly to black folks.
These images are often accompanied by a gotta-hear-both-sides text caption – for example, telling the viewer that not all black people are thugs, and not all police are bad. Recommendations for concrete policy reform are generally absent, but there is always an encouragement to be kind to one another.
The public’s appetite for this sort of feel-good content is not surprising. Legislation is complicated and long. Interpersonal kindness is easy – at least on its face. This is why “Good Cop” content is so seductive; we may be moved by images of reality, but we also want reassurance – that things will get better.
For the viewer, “Good Cop” images can provide that easy reassurance. And for police departments, they are a great organic source of positive PR.
This type of material is what Silicon Valley types would call “user-generated content”: it depends on other people, such as the press or even police-brutality protesters, capturing the tender moment and sharing it online.
But right now, much of the user-generated content about police is damning. It’s not just the endlessly repeating images of black people dying at the hands of police. It’s a constant nationwide flow of violent footage from protest sites showing police shoving protesters, pepper spraying journalists, and driving into crowds.
So recently, some police have become more proactive, creating their own photo opportunities by doing something that would have been unthinkable even a couple weeks ago: kneeling down along with protesters.
Some welcome these gestures. In person at the protests, they are often met with applause, seen as a sign of solidarity and example-setting for cops around the country. And online, kneeling cops also find a ready audience looking for a reassuring sign that things are going to be okay.
Others are skeptical. To some, it is at best an empty gesture that falls short of a concrete promise of systemic change — and at worst, a cynical play for viral photos and headlines. Some feel uncomfortable with the pose itself, as there is something admittedly strange about a police officer adopting a gesture that at once recalls Colin Kaepernick, but, in a police uniform, simultaneously recalls the pose of the police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
But the piecemeal utilization of this charm offensive even within individual police departments is a sign that police nationwide are struggling with their public image in a society that is flooded with visual evidence of police violence.
On Monday in West Hollywood, LAPD Commander Cory Palka walked into a group of protesters and offered to take a knee with them. There was some vocal skepticism in the group, but the cheers were louder. Cameras and cellphones came out, and the moment was shared widely.
But this was overshadowed only an hour later, with a statement by his boss, LAPD Chief Michel Moore.
In a press conference, Moore said that the death of George Floyd was on the hands of looters “as much as it is those officers” in Minneapolis. He came back later in the same press conference to rephrase his words, and apologized again that evening. But the damage was done. The next morning, in the public comment section of a Police Commission meeting, activists were demanding his resignation.
Criticism over Moore’s comments, as well as the LAPD’s handling of protests in general, has also been directed at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Perhaps in response to this, Garcetti appeared at a demonstration in front of City Hall on Tuesday, and knelt down. As he did so, he was surrounded by applause. But mixed in over those approving cheers were simultaneous chants of “Defund the police!”
As protests continue nationwide, VICE News spoke to activists in West Hollywood about their mixed feelings on the new trend of police kneeling at protests, and the mixed messaging they feel they are receiving from authorities in general.
Cover: Police officers kneel during a rally in Coral Gables, Florida, on May 30, 2020. (EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)