A new local film designed to recruit future police officers isn’t very good.
The Northampton Police Department released a short documentary film last week. I am not sure if it will be submitted to major film festivals, as it was first published on YouTube, skipping a theatrical release all together. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I decided to view it. The title of the short non-fiction film is Northampton Recruitment Video, and it is designed to reel potential officers onto the force.
Northampton Recruitment doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of the law enforcement marketing genre. The film distinguishes itself in that it isn’t only selling the perks of being a cop, but it is also selling Northampton. Half of the five minute film could have been written and produced by the Chamber of Commerce. Northampton Recruitment dwells on how “everything happens here”—what an exciting place Northampton really is. There are restaurants, live music, local shops, and plenty of nightlife.
The ICE recruitment video, on the other hand, is far more menacing and over the top, as it displays actual ethnic cleansing to entice recruits. Brown skinned people are dragged off the street, booked into jail, and then, escorted by ICE officers, they are seen bussed to an airplane to be flown away and vanished for good.
In Northampton Recruitment, the violence and dehumanization manifests itself differently, perhaps less overtly. Here, officers drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee while they watch joggers and protesters through state of the art surveillance technology, located in a mobile command unit as one form of engagement with the public. The only other scene that shows police interacting with a person—who isn’t another cop or Mayor David Narkewicz—is during a traffic stop. Multiple cops have pulled over a cheap, compact car at night with sirens going. Nowhere in Northampton Recruitment are officers seen interacting with members of the public in a way that could be perceived as friendly—and not asserting dominance. They aren’t seen giving food to the impoverished, returning missing dogs to their humans, or assisting elderly citizens—which are the types of tasks the NPD loves to brag about on social media.
In the video, when they aren’t blabbering about shops and restaurants or their state of the art gym, they are having target practice and making it very clear that you do not have to take an exam to join the force. In the short film, we see fourteen weapons drawn and eleven more on screen. The implication is that to be an officer in Northampton you need to be good at shooting a gun—even a semi-automatic one. But as Les Mack notes in his adjacent review, the NPD has had zero officer involved shootings in over thirty years. That said, the film’s off-putting and jarring juxtaposition between violence and Northampton being the Paradise City is quite representative of contradictions within the community. As Ted McCoy notes in his Shoestring piece, “Welcome to Guntown,” The Valley is filled with weapons manufacturers and related businesses. The guns have to get shot somewhere. Never mind that one of Northampton’s largest private employers is the military contractor, L3 KEO.
One common thematic trope of the law enforcement recruitment marketing genre is touting an implied commitment to officer diversity. In the aforementioned ICE video, Latinos are shown rounding up Latinos—which, of course, doesn’t make it any less fascistic and cruel. Likewise, a higher-budget, action-packed, Hollywood-like recruitment video from New Zealand, that has nearly two-million views, shows male and female officers of varying races working together to make their country “the safest in the world.” Conforming to this trend, Northampton Recruitment pans over a picture of female officers on the force. And early in the film, a female officer is wielding a semi-automatic weapon, laughing, before the frame jumps to Chief Jody Kasper. But, in spite of this trend, as Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale argues in his new book The End of Policing, diverse police forces do not ameliorate inequalities of gender, race, or class. In fact, police often maintain these hierarchies. Poor communities and communities of color receive disproportionate policing, and women are incarcerated now at higher rates than ever before. Likewise, in spite of the film’s perceived commitment to diversity, the NPD is about 87% male and approximately 97% white, according to the NPD Open Data Portal.
Ultimately Northampton Recruitment veers hyperbolic about the realities of the job. The Northampton Police, while they have committed acts of unnecessary brutality towards black men in recent memory, haven’t shot anyone in a long time and they do interact with members of the community in ways that are seen (by some) as positive—such as giving police trading cards to kids. Like all advertising though, everything is grossly exaggerated. On the NPD Facebook page, its noted that veteran officers averaged 137 hours of training last year. The video doesn’t mention this (only the training for new recruits). It shows the guns instead.
The new Northampton Police Department recruitment video, released on January 30, 2018, makes a bold statement about how the department imagines effective policing. It should be a glaring reminder of the disconnect between the expressed desires of the Northampton community, statistics on effective policing, and contemporary debates on community safety and the course the NPD appears to be determined to strike. Of recent, that trajectory has included attempts to install surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton (in spite of large public outcry and subsequent, resounding defeat by city council); excessive force against Jonas Correia; license plate tracking in downtown parking lots; the decision to pursue a criminal case against Eric Matlock despite a recent video that contradicts NPD testimony; and a request for riot gear.
Visually, the promotional video’s incessant repetition of firearms and target practice take center stage. One minute in, as the narrator talks of “specialty assignments and opportunities,” an officer holds a large semi-automatic weapon. In the next scene two officers are shown firing down a stylized shooting range. The next cut shows drones, and a minute later, more active shooting. While the officers are not shooting people, a bullet ridden human target is displayed on screen to remind us of the nefarious nature of what they are practicing.
Beyond imagery, the promotional video’s narration emphasizes action—from police use of force, to the new state-of-the-art station, underscored solely by its modern gym, to describing the academy where cadets “go through physical training, defensive training, as well as a lot of classroom hours.” Missing from this (or obliquely hidden in terms such as “opportunity for advancement”) are notions of de-escalation, harm reduction, minimizing criminality, and other forms of behavior and policing that reduce tragedy and keep people out of the carceral system.
It should be noted, from data listed on the police department’s Open Data Portal, that there have been zero officer-involved shootings in over 30 years. Similarly, in 2016 only 4.39% of detainees required use-of-force, a broad category including restraint of various forms, eye spray, batons, and the displaying of a weapon. Over half of these detainees included people under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In short, Northampton is an exceedingly safe town, not due to the effectiveness of its police, but most saliently its relative wealth.
Last, the video’s target audience is clearly directed at people who live beyond the Northampton area. One of the most basic, minimal demands of communities seeking for greater oversight of their police departments is that that employees be selected from within the communities they will serve. As society has withdrawn many social supports, the demands upon police have increased in intensity and breadth. While this phenomena is lamentable and not solely the fault of police, it is imperative that police respond accordingly. Marketing the demands of the job, overtly or otherwise, as violent to potential applicants unfamiliar with the area is a prescription for further violence, alienation, fear, and deteriorating relationships. One would hope that in a town with the graces of such minimal violence and crime, the police force would be on the cutting edge of progressive changes, not retrograde messaging and its implications.