Teaching the Police to Wage the “Three Block War”
America’s urban police departments are in an information war, and they are losing. Anti-police groups have seized the narrative that cops are on a genocidal mission to kill young black men. The fact that black young men are killing each other by a multiple factor far exceeding police shootings has largely been ignored by the media in the current police related crisis era. The police need to learn how to fight an information war against non-state actors such as Black Lives Matter. Body cameras could help, but many cops see them as a problem rather than as the opportunity that they represent.
Police do thousands of good deeds every day ranging from saving kids from locked cars to defusing spousal abuse incidents (which most cops believe are the most dangerous calls they respond to). Body cameras could capture these day-to-day heroics and share them with the public as a way of showing the reality of what the police accomplish for their communities, but many cops see them as an intrusive device to gather evidence on them in criminal and lawsuits; this needs to change.
We no longer live in a 24- hour news cycle. Today, the cycle is hourly and everyone with a Smartphone is a potential reporter via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media outlets. Most police departments remain trapped in the 24-hour news cycle by their 20th century public relations approach. Body cameras offer them the ability to respond to the 21st century information cycle, but it will take a revolution in the way police operate and train to exploit the opportunity that social media offers. Body cams can show the lead-up to a shooting incident, but they can also record when incidents are peacefully defused as well as the myriad of community services performed by police throughout the nation that go unnoticed every day. Most cop reality shows are filmed months in advance and highlight only dramatic incidents of people acting badly and police intervening in dangerous incidents. That is not the day-to-day reality of policing.
Social media has created a near instantaneous news cycle of Action-Perception-Response (A-P-R). Current police public affairs practices are archaic at best. Non-governmental groups such as Black Lives Matter are consistently beating police in the A-P-R era. Those groups can set the narrative long before police can respond by existing means. Sometimes, the narrative is established even before an incident has been reported through the police chain of command. Body cams, if innovatively used, can help police get inside the A-P-R cycle; however, to do this properly, will require organizational and training reforms.
First, police headquarters have to establish an information operations cell to quickly receive important body cam footage and post it on social media such as Facebook and YouTube. An information operations cell should include a lawyer and a media specialist to quickly put an incident in context before posting. Let’s take an example from real life. A young man high on drugs is being apprehended for a convenience store robbery; he turns on the arresting officer and tries to grab the officer’s weapon. A scuffle ensues in which the perpetrator is shot. The officer, realizing the seriousness of the incident, sends the video to the information operations cell.
The cell quickly analyzes the incident, and having blurred the perpetrator’s face for privacy purposes, posts it to the department’s Facebook account as well as sending it to local media outlets. If this had happened in a place like Ferguson, local activists would not have been able to establish a conflicting narrative; the “Gentle Giant” myth would have been dispelled and ensuing riots might well have been avoided.
However, clarifying incidents is not the only use for such a system. There is a great opportunity for improving police-community relations. In a recent YouTube video, police recused a baby duck from an entangled fishing line and the event was captured by Smartphone. The video went viral nation-wide. This kind of thing happens nation-wide every day, but the incidents largely go unnoticed unless there happens to be a passerby with a Smartphone or video camera handy. Police departments with a website could have an invaluable tool for public relations if they use body cams wisely.
There is more required for such a system to work than just an information operations cell. Police have to be trained to recognize what should be reported, be it good or bad. Twenty years ago, the Marine Corps began a training program to develop what it called “Strategic Corporals”. Marine leadership realized that a fire team leader engaged in the urban Three Block War must be trained to recognize that, in the media age, a local incident could have world-wide strategic impact near immediately (the Three Block War refers to situations where one can be involved in a humanitarian operation on one block, peacekeeping on another, and a full scale firefight on yet another in an urban environment). Junior Marine leaders were taught to recognize potential strategic incidents and act accordingly. In this age of social media, our police are engaged in a Three Block War domestically as was the case in Dallas and Baton Rouge; they need to be trained to react accordingly.
To paraphrase the movie Dr. Strangelove, our cops must learn to: “stop worrying and love the bodycam.”