Slam dunk video by Florida cop: Can positive images of police change minds?

The short video stands in stark contrast to accurate but one-sided portraits of some police officers who show deep callousness – or poor judgment. The acts of kindness are also a part of that portrait. 

Gainesville Police Department
Dashcam video from the Gainesville, Fla., shows Officer Bobby White playing basketball with local kids on Jan. 15, 2016.

There’s a moment of uncertainty when Gainesville, Fla., police officer Bobby White, on an excessive noise call, grabs a basketball from a black teenager, dash cam rolling. The tension dissipates instantly as Mr. White, who is white, lets the ball fly toward the street side basket.

 “Can you believe someone is calling to complain about kids playing basketball in the street?” White says before engaging the group of players in a quick game, ending with a dunk – albeit on a slightly-lowered basket.

Watching a cop in over 30 pounds of police gear make himself vulnerable in front of a group of kids was another one of a growing number of impromptu – and filmed – moments of American police officers doing exactly the right thing.

Officer White is obviously comfortable in his own skin (especially given his so-so b-ball game), makes a note for the group to be conscious of their noise, and then vows to come back with some of his buddies for a real game.

The short video is newsworthy in part because it stands in such stark contrast to a national conversation, fueled by tragic videos of police brutality, about why some police officers show deep callousness – or poor judgement – toward those they’re sworn to protect and serve. As a result, Americans’ view of police – especially among minorities – is at a post-9/11 low. Tensions are high, especially amid several apparently politically-motivated ambush attacks on police officers.

In that light, Gainesville’s decision to promote the video is also part of a genuine response by American police departments to make sure that Americans don’t forget the countless unheralded moments that endear policemen and policewomen to their communities – officers walking a disoriented woman across a street, a cop tossing a football with cul-de-sac kids, or staging a quick dance-off to defuse a fight.

Such small reminders of what good community policing looks like can help provide a fresh start for beleaguered police departments looking to improve their standing in the community. Such filmed interactions also, University of Nebraska criminologist Sam Walker has told The Christian Science Monitor, provide an instant primer on humanity for officers who struggle to show heart.

“As the sun rises in Florida … our video is now almost at 4 million views … [u]nreal,” someone in the Gainesville, Fla., police department posted on Facebook. “Not all of us that wear the badge are perfect. Not even close. But we know there are thousands of officers around the country that are just like this.”

In Gainesville, the moment captured what appears to be a department-wide effort to make sure police officers make solid determinations between serious criminal behavior and “kids being kids,” as the Facebook post noted. It stands in stark contrast to methods like “stop-and-frisk” which led to tens of thousands of small-time arrests under New York City’s “broken windows” policing project.

Instead, the Gainesville Police Department’s message seemed to focus on how even small positive interactions in the community have a tendency to create exponential goodwill, especially if it catches on social media.

At the very least, given that the vast majority of Americans don’t have much interaction with the police, such snapshots provide a powerful counterweight to a profusion of images of cops behaving questionably, and worse.

After all, only 1.4 percent of respondents to a 2008 Department of Justice survey said officers had used force against them, or threatened to use it. (The percentage is higher, by comparison, however, for young, black men.) Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 of the 60,000 respondents said officers in their most recent encounter with police acted respectfully.

“People are very quick to take out their cell phones when they see a confrontation,” Fraternal Order of Police executive director Joe Pasco told The Christian Science Monitor’s Jessica Mendoza last year, “but almost never tape the good things.”

Of course, there’s another obvious reason that damning police abuse videos have dominated the news – after all, American lives have been lost, indictments handed down, and cops thrown in prison.

But the role of videos in the debate has expanded at least in part to more widely promote and model what good policing looks like.

There’s Officer William Stacy, who last year was captured on a stranger’s cell phone video giving a hug to a woman in Tarrant, Ala., who had been accused of shoplifting eggs. The story of barebones survival of a single mom sparked Mr. Stacy to buy her groceries, and send her on her way.

“I’m just one out of hundreds of thousands who do this on a daily basis,” Stacy said.

And last year, another video went viral, of an Iraq war veteran and Washington, D.C., officer who broke up a fight in part by staging an impromptu dance-off with a girl. The scene ended with hugs, not arrests.

And in Texas, mom Alicia Rivera watched a police officer approach her two boys last year and thought, “Oh, they’re so in trouble.” Instead, the officer, Harlingen Officer Steven Benitez, started tossing a football with the boys.

“One of them challenged me to pass as far as I could and I accepted him on that challenge – and a few minutes break turned into a five-minute scrimmage,” Mr. Benitez told a local TV station.

But he also grew introspective in response to tough criticism of police officers across the nation, which began with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. “Behind this badge, underneath my vest, I’m a human being – I bleed, I have flesh, I have my own family, we have emotions as well,” he said, according to CentralValley.com.

By revealing that humanity for just a few moments, Mr. Benitez changed at least two minds.

“I used to be scared of cops, now I’m not,” said the older brother, George.

“They’re not bad people, they’re good people,” his brother, Frank, added.

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