Media

The 8 Most Popular Types of 'Copaganda': How the Police Play the Media

The police are very underrated at getting what they want done.

Photo Credit: 1000 Words/Shutterstock

Media critics spend a lot of time discussing how our military industry manipulates the press into war and bloated defense budgets. Far less time, however, is spent discussing how our local police departments plays the media to suit their ends. The reason for this mostly has to do with the fragmented nature of localized propaganda, combined with a prejudice that police aren't very savvy. But ever since Ferguson and the subsequent unrest, various departments and their ideological allies have gotten more sophisticated at playing the media without much notice.

To counter this, police reform and police abolitionist activists on Twitter have invented a rather useful term: "Copaganda." Copaganda is any news story that uncritically advances a police department's image or helps undermine reform efforts. 

Here are eight of the most common forms of copaganda. 

1. The conveniently timed “how dangerous the job is” story.

One of the more subtle ways the media helps muddy the waters on police violence is by publishing tales of how difficult the police have it as PR-intensive trials of police officers are being carried out in the public. While not directly apologizing for police violence, the “fog of war” framing sows doubts in the public’s mind and allows more leeway in highly charged cases of police misconduct.

These pieces almost always involve the ride-along and adopt many of the police’s (anecdotal) tales of occupational woe. One of the more recent examples was Fox 5 in New York City, which sent Lisa Evers and a former NYPD detective on what’s called a “vertical patrol," a controversial tactic of hyper-vigilant policing whereby two officers go from the top of a public housing complex to the bottom looking for criminality.

The ostensible reason for the report was a recent nonfatal shooting of two NYPD police officers who were doing a vertical patrol of the Melrose Houses in the Bronx. The subtext may have been to help justify a previous incident of police violence, the killing of Akai Gurley by Officer Peter Liang in early 2014 during a vertical patrol, the verdict of which was to be announced the next day. The report stresses the dangers (despite the fact that being a police officer doesn't crack the top ten most dangerous jobs in the United States) and relies almost entirely on police testimony, ominous framing, and some hand-picked locals who want more police presence in their neighborhood.

2. The diversity boosting story.

The racism inherent in most stories of police brutality tricks many into thinking a more diverse police force necessarily makes for a less racist one. While the science backing up this assumption is inconclusive, the wildly disproportionate white police representation of Ferguson combined with their rank, systemic racism strikes most people as intuitively problematic. 

While a more representational police force certainly can’t hurt, stories highlighting how inclusive policing are give the appearance of reform where no concrete evidence of reform exists. Take this article highlighting black women on the L.A. police force, “Shifting the blue line: Why a black woman is joining LAPD,” which details one African-American woman’s journey to join the notorious Los Angeles Police Department. It is full of examples of why those around her disliked her decision to join, but doesn’t objectively analyze whether these concerns were justified. It simply advances a tale of singular courage that ignores broader concerns of systemic racism and instead reads like a recruiting brochure for the LAPD. 

3. The bogus threat.

A time-honored tradition that dates back to the civil rights era, police will claim they’ve received threats from activists to preemptively justify any crackdowns they may want to engage in. Here we have an AP story from the first day of the Selma march:

And here we have an AP article from last year's Baltimore uprising the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral:

There’s only one problem: a FOIA request made by Vice's Jason Leopold months later revealed the Baltimore PD’s “credible” gang threat was entirely without basis:

Hours later, in the same email chain, another DHS employee said, "FBI Baltimore has interviewed the source of this information and has determined this threat to be non-credible," apparently making this the first time that it was debunked since the threat first surfaced.

This means the Baltimore Police Department deliberately spread rumors of a threat they, and the FBI, knew was “non-credible” in the ramp up to public demonstrations and the media mindlessly and uncritically disseminated it, despite seeing no evidence supporting the claim. But the effect was achieved: the protesters were preemptively criminalized and the crackdown that followed provided the necessary PR cover.

4. Pinkwashing.

"Pinkwashing" is an increasingly popular tool used to describe the exploitation of LGBT rights to whitewash negative aspects of an otherwise reactionary institution. A frequent PR tool employed by Israel, large metropolitan police departments from Fort Worth to Buffalo have joined in Gay Pride parades to show their progressive values. A video of an NYPD officer dancing at the New York gay pride parade went viral last summer, only six years after some NYPD officers were charged with trawling adult video stores and falsely arresting gay men in sleazy entrapment operations.

5. Anonymously smearing police shooting victims.

In the wake of a police shooting, cops and their media partisans rush to get as much dirt on the victims out as possible. The nominal reason for this is to provide color, nuance and a bit of background, but the reason, at least in effect, is to provide the police post-facto justification for excessive force in the press. We saw this in the cases of Eric Garner, Sandra BlandSam DuboseCharly "Africa" Keunang, and Freddie Gray.

As I wrote last August:

From the beginning, the media was quick to contextualize Brown's shooting by finding unflattering personal details about his life including routine run-ins with the law. The most shameless case was the now infamous August 25 profile in the New York Times that insisted "Mike Brown was no angel" as if anyone had argued otherwise about him, or another human being on earth.... For Brown, and countless black victims like him, they were as much, if not more, on trial than the person who had done the actual killing....

In the wake of a police shooting, the need to rationalize police violence -- typically under the guise of "balance" -- almost always means demonizing the victim through public records requests, government leaks, and selective interviews. When one adopts a "both sides" mentality for police shootings, based on the nature of murder, one person cannot speak for themselves, invariably leaving us with one perspective: that of the police.

6. The “saving kittens” story.

Who doesn’t love a heartwarming tale of saving kittens and homeless people? Everyone, mostly notable a lazy media who routinely run stories of police doing everyday acts of kindness, some of which are curated and highlighted by the police department’s public relations apparatus or friendly media. One of the more embarrassing examples of this trope was a recent New York Times Metro story about NYPD counterterrorism police helping rescue a kitten:

Sure, it’s swell a few bored counterterrorism cops saved a kitten, but did the story really need coverage in the New York TimesExpress UK and Gothamist? Schmaltzy articles about one-off acts of charity are not something serious news organizations should be indulging. In a healthy media environment, power should be met with the highest standard of skepticism, not a false sense of balance by highlighting PR-fed stories of heartstring-pulling saccharin.

7. The community policing myth.

In the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson there was a rush to try and show how certain police departments were making progress. In the absence of substantive change, PR-driven fairy tales about community policing and outreach are peddled by police departments and a media hungry for progress. The most tone-deaf was the Washington Post's Wes Lowery who ran a Fresno Police Department infomercial about supposed reforms they had made, “In Fresno, a community-policing ethos builds ties between officers and residents,” complete with police smiling with local residents and other progress entirely defined by tone and optics. As Josmar Trujillo at FAIR notes, the catch-all community policing is a red herring:

That “vagueness” is huge hit with police officials. In theory, community policing advocates better collaboration between cops and the neighborhoods they patrol. In practice, it simply means more police, oftimes using them to coax information out of one group of people that can be useful in arresting another. Police can, for example, take their cue to conduct more “quality-of-life policing” (arresting beggars, street performers or teenagers standing on a corner) from a concerned community member. It also frames police as community problem-solvers in lieu of actual problem-solvers, like social workers, school counselors, etc.

Community policing is a term so vague as to mean nothing. Indeed, the same 1994 crime bill that got us here in the first place was loaded with references to community policing, which, as Trujillo notes, only led to more police and thus more police violence and harassment and arrests. The idea that having better relations with the civilian population is inherently good is superficially appealing, but without tethering such gestures to concrete reform and a de-escalation of police presence, they amount to little more than fluff.

8. The Christmas gift surprise.

One of the more nakedly shameless tactics, some police departments have taken to pulling over random people, who presumably think they’re about to get a ticket, and handing them cash or toys

The media reports these heartwarming stories without bothering to ask why emotionally terrorizing poor people with the prospect of a ticket is offset by giving people a wad of cash or a teddy bear —all the name of running a silly and pointless commercial for the local department.

h/t @OLAASM who popularized the term on Twitter.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.