On Tuesday, the New York Police Department asked its Twitter followers to tweet pictures of them interacting with the city’s policemen with the hashtag #myNYPD. This attempt of promoting a positive image for the department instead backfired into a public-shaming stint by their followers.
The #myNYPD Twitter campaign became an outlet for people to erupt the Twittersphere with pictures of the department’s excessive brutality, particularly during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Instead of happy pictures of cops in uniform posing with locals and helping people out, the #myNYPD hashtag was flooded with barbaric images of policemen kneeing civilians, bashing people with sticks and the bloody results.
After more than 10,000 tweets in an hour with the hashtag #myNYPD Tuesday evening, NYPD did not have much to say in defense. All NYPD spokeswoman Kim Royster publically had to say was, “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community. Twitter provides and open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city.”
This revealing #myNYPD Twitter campaign sparked similar hashtag trends directed toward various police departments around the country, such as LAPD. Twitter user @amusem tweeted a picture of an NYPD officer pulling at a woman in handcuffs’ hair, with the caption, “Is that the one your public relations people requested? #mynypd.” Well, probably not.
Although this was most likely not the social media activity that NYPD intended with this hashtag, a conversation around police brutality is one that needed to be brought to light. Since police are a vital part to keeping any community safe, their shortcomings and excessive violence often go overlooked.
Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report scrutinizing the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico for their unacceptable “pattern of excessive force.” Last month the APD shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless Albuquerque man, during an outburst of mental instability. According to a Tuesday USA Today article, Boyd was the 37th person shot by APD and the 23rd one killed since January 2010.
And just two days ago, an APD policeman shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes who was suspected of truck theft — “suspected” being the operative word. Similar to Boyd, even though Hawkes never pulled out a gun on the police, she is the third person in five weeks to be shot dead by the Albuquerque police.
As the brutality of the APD and NYPD have re-entered the spotlight via social media week, it is vital that our justice department revisits the conversation around conventional police training. The fact that Tuesday evening’s Twittersphere was dominated with more pictures of police brutality than compassion speaks to a fundamental problem within this country’s police force, in which they are trained to act based on reaction rather than rationale.
Attila Denes, a Colorado County Police Captain, said the incessant issue of police brutality around the United States lies in the way policemen are trained. According to a 2013 report by the National Sheriff’s Association, at least half of the people who are violently killed by police in the U.S. every year have some sort of mental health problem — such as one of APD’s victims, James Boyd. If police were taught how to better identify the psychological rather than physical state of the suspected criminal, than fatal encounters between the police and mentally ill wouldn’t be so frequent.
“Traditional law enforcement tactics are rooted in logic, in reasoning — and in issuing commands for someone to comply so that we can make the situation safe right now by taking a person into custody,” Denes said. “But barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn’t work.”
This is not meant to undermine the importance and vital role police forces play in a community, however. Just look at the positive role both the Boston Police Department and Boston University Police Department play in our daily lives. Both of these departments act with good intentions, and, for the most part, succeed in making BU and Boston feel safe. Their excessive presence at Monday’s Marathon was not only warranted, but comforting as well.
But, at the same time, it would do our country a disservice to overlook how frequently the police use excessive force to quiet at rowdy crowd. Police should be inherently emphathetic, not just toward the mentally ill, but also toward normal, everyday civilians. If the police were trained with more of an emphasis on psychology and empathy, maybe Tuesday evenings Twittersphere would have been filled with fewer pictures of NYPD police officers with their knees on people’s necks, and more pictures of Hallmark moments like their social media managers probably intended.