After a dozen Occupy Minnesota protesters were arrested at a downtown demonstration, the group quickly took to the Internet, posting video that activists said showed police treating them roughly and never warning them to leave.
But Minneapolis police knew warnings had been given. And they had their own video to prove it. So they posted the footage on YouTube, an example of how law-enforcement agencies nationwide are embracing online video to cast doubt on false claims and offer their own perspective to the public.
“It certainly frustrates the street officers to see their work being twisted into something that didn’t happen or things being taken out of context,” said Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer. “Frankly, the use of force, which is what most people want to film, is never going to look good, and the context can easily be twisted.”
After years of seeing officers’ misconduct captured on video, police departments across the nation are trying to use the medium to their advantage, releasing footage of their own to rebut allegations and to build trust within communities. One department even posted video of an officer punching a woman to show why he was fired.
Weeks before the Occupy demonstration in April, Minneapolis police created their own YouTube channel to give officers a venue to tell their own stories.
“We want to be transparent,” Assistant Chief Janee Harteau said. “Here is what we did. You can see for yourself and be your own judge.”
Larger departments in cities such as Boston, Baltimore and Milwaukee have had YouTube channels for years. They often post surveillance video, updates on cases, messages from the chief and public-service announcements.
Some agencies don’t rely on YouTube. After Oakland, Calif., officers were criticized for the way they handled an Occupy protest in October, police there released four videos on their website showing hostile protesters surrounding police and throwing paint at them. Officers later resorted to tear gas.
Jeff Bumgarner, a professor in the law-enforcement program at Minnesota State University-Mankato, said when police release video, it gives them added credibility.
“It does take a lot of the wind out of the sails of critics who assert a lack of transparency,” he said.
The Milwaukee Police Department posts full news conferences and has started using its YouTube channel to record interviews with traditional media outlets — especially when police believe the reporter is being combative or pursuing an agenda.
Investigators also have solved crimes with YouTube. Milwaukee officers recently arrested one of the city’s most-wanted suspects after a citizen saw a television news clip and then went to YouTube to watch the full surveillance video.