The Abuse Of ‘Feel-Good’ Cop Videos

Lead image: flickr/Johnathan Nightingale
Violent and abusive police systems are not ended with ice cream.

I remember the first time a man let me know that he could kill me if he chose to. I was 19 years old. My fiancé and I had just finished an argument. I had flinched at his rage. He noticed my fear, and he told me a story.

“My ex told her family that she thought I was going to kill her,“ he said, “I mean, I’m really strong. I could hurt people really bad if I wanted to. I’ll punch holes in walls if I have to.” He pulled a sword off of the wall and casually twirled it around while he looked at me, “But I wouldn’t have hurt her. I wasn’t abusive. She should see what real abuse is.”

My heart pounded out of my chest until he put the sword back on the wall and smiled.

“I’m glad you know I’d never hurt you,” he said.

I remember the first time a man let me know that he could kill me if he chose to.

I haven’t thought about that moment in years. It’s been replaced with new fears. What will kill me now is not that man. What will kill me now could be a man I reject on the street, a future partner, or a cop.

Every day that I get behind the wheel, I am aware that there are men out there with guns on their hips and the authority to take my life at any moment. Like that abusive relationship, the signs of how precarious my situation is are everywhere. The cops are watching, never smiling. Pulling me over because I merged a little too quickly, went one mile over the speed limit — there’s always some guise of a reason. There’s always a way I brought it on myself.

I don’t question them anymore, they’ve conditioned me to no longer do that.

“Is there going to be a problem here?” They ask.

“I could arrest you. But I’m going to just give you a ticket.” They let me know, benevolently. Their guns at my eye level.

I see videos of people who look like me dead in the street and I know what the alternative to this ticket really could be.

The signs of how precarious my situation is are everywhere.

A few months ago when I was walking to the store with my teenage son, a cop followed us on a busy highway, at a walking pace, all the way to the store. He stared at us coldly the entire time. When we entered the store parking lot he followed us in there too. Driving slowly behind us, all the way to the entrance of the store. He stayed there until we went in.

My son was shaking with fear the entire time. “Don’t say anything,” I said quietly, “Don’t make any sudden moves, don’t look at him. Just walk. We’ll be okay soon.”

“I shouldn’t have to be this afraid, Mom,” my son said, his voice wavering.

“I know, baby,” I said.

We entered the store feeling grateful to be alive and aware that if the police officer had decided otherwise, we would not have been.

Today, when I saw this video which has gone viral these past few days as a “feel-good” cop story, I finally made the connection. The video is of a black woman being pulled over by police. There is terror on her face as the officer walks up to her car. His gun is at her eye level. But the officer doesn’t reach for the gun — instead, he reaches for two ice cream cones to hand over to her and her passenger. Her terror gives way to the almost tearful relief that she is not going to come to harm at the hands of these officers. At least not today.

There is terror on her face as the officer walks up to her car. His gun is at her eye level.

This fear is what they want.

Watching this video, I was suddenly 19 again, trying not to cry while my boyfriend toyed with a sword and told me that I was lucky he’d never hurt me. And I was also the scared mother I was a few months ago, flooded with relief that the cop who followed my baby and I had let us get to the store alive. Watching this video I understood what these “feel-good” video and picture campaigns put on by police departments really are — abuse. They are designed to remind us that they are in charge, and that they are capable of taking our lives in an instant — but if we are good and they are feeling benevolent, they won’t.

These videos, combined with the countless videos of black men and women and children shot dead by cops, serve to remind us that we should both fear and love them if we want to survive. And if we don’t survive, we have nobody to blame but ourselves — see how capable of not killing us they can be?

Anybody who has been in an abusive relationship will recognize this behavior. It’s a raised hand that might be a slap but then lowers for a pat on the shoulder. It’s a friendly warning that — this time — they aren’t going to get really mad. A reminder that what you are experiencing right now isn’t really abuse — you know what real abuse looks like.

These ‘feel-good’ video and picture campaigns put on by police departments are abuse.

The woman in this video was pulled over and terrorized just to let her know that they could. And she was given ice cream to let her know that she should be grateful. And the video was broadcast so that we would all know that we should feel the same.

It’s disgusting.

The time and money spent terrorizing citizens with ice cream cones could have been spent retraining the police force on how to confront their implicit biases and deescalate potentially dangerous situations. Or it could have been spent doing anything other than pulling over unsuspecting black women and scaring the shit out of them for laughs.

Just as abusive relationships don’t end with flowers, abusive police systems don’t end with ice cream. Anything short of commitment to justice for those abused and killed by police and commitment to fundamental change in the criminal justice system is all part of the abuse cycle — designed to keep us afraid and grateful for the ability to be.

We must reject anything short of the change that will make us safe from the murderous whims of our criminal justice system.

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