Carleton PhD Candidate’s Research Shows Social Media is Changing Policing

According to Carleton PhD candidate Greg Brown’s research, camera phones and social media are changing front-line policing. (Justin Tang Photo)

When Carleton’s Greg Brown took up his first front-line policing job in Ottawa in 1985, things were much different than they are today. Most of all, there were no smartphones or cameras to record officers on the job.

Today, it’s the norm. And as Brown examines in his new study, The Blue Line on Thin Ice: Police Use of Force Modifications in the Era of Cameraphones and YouTube, the constant presence of smartphones and social media is changing policing practices.

“When I started in 1985 and I was walking a beat in Vanier, the public basically had the approach of ‘the police do what they do. That’s their business,’” says Brown, a PhD candidate at Carleton’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a police officer for 30 years.

On his return to front-line service in 1994 after 16 years working in other units, Brown noticed a significant change in the relationship between the public and police.

“What I noticed from the outset is you go to a call, you’re doing your job, you’re interacting with somebody,” Brown says. “Maybe things get violent or there’s some kind of dispute, and suddenly everybody within view has their phones out, recording what’s going on.”

As part of his research at Carleton, Brown conducted a survey of 231 operational police officers and institutional policing officials in Ottawa and Toronto to find out how they had been affected by the increase in video-recording. Of those surveyed, nearly all had been filmed on the job and 50 per cent had curbed their use of force as a result.

Brown says the impact is a double edged sword. While technology and social media hold officers accountable, they can also place them under significant pressure and scrutiny.

“If it prevents misconduct, it prevents someone from being victimized,” says Brown. “In that respect, I think it’s a good thing.”

The downside, Brown says, is whether officers will continuously second-guess themselves on the job. Some of the officers he surveyed suggested there are certain calls and situations they would rather avoid.

It’s something Brown experienced firsthand while working as a Taser operator during an incident that stopped traffic on Bronson Avenue. Within minutes, hundreds of bystanders gathered to record the incident with their phones.

“A couple people say: ‘Oh wow this guy’s the Taser guy. Something’s going to happen now,’” Brown says. “It makes you think about your behaviour and how this is going to look on video, and am I doing everything exactly properly, or could I be criticized for this kind of thing.”

While Brown believes the public’s new watchdog role is important, he says there is a need for better awareness about the role of police, including public education about what constitutes reasonable use of force, citizen rights and legal frameworks governing police.

“I don’t think that’s out there,” Brown says. “So if we can have broad conversations around those kinds of things, then I think everybody operates from a position of understanding.”

“There’s a really interesting opportunity here to contribute to public discussion about the police and public understanding.”

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Kirsten Fenn

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