Those viral videos of friendly police officers mask the problematic reality of policing

  • Viral videos showing police officers playing basketball or dancing with residents portray them in a heartwarming light.
  • But sometimes those very same officers are accused of using excessive force, violence, and racist policing practices.
  • That's why we should focus less on singular acts of individual officers and instead reexamine the institution and culture of policing itself.
  • Eric Ginsburg is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Samuel Alvarez has been a fixture at the annual folk music festival in Greensboro, North Carolina since it began in 2015. His shining bald head and reflective yellow police vest make him easy to spot amid the free festival's thousands of attendees, who flock to various stages across Greensboro's downtown. But what really gets Alvarez noticed are his moves. The man can dance.

During the festival's inaugural year, Alvarez took a break from his duties working the festival to enjoy it. Despite all the tactical police gear strapped to his waist, he stepped nimbly as he twirled a festivalgoer in a Carolina blue dress. A small crowd gathered, watching his beaming smile, his effortless motions, his black-gloved hand on the woman's lower back guiding her. Several people pulled out their phones to record.

"Across the nation, more police dancing please!" a local musician captioned the clip she shared to Facebook. The video quickly racked up thousands of views. A local TV station picked up the story. "Officer Sam Alvarez says the music was so good, he couldn't help but dance," the local Fox affiliate reported.

The subtext to the 2015 video was obvious. After the high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland that year — and Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and others the year before — here was an officer demonstrating an alternative. This is what policing could and should be, people felt.

"I think the Greensboro Police Department not only represents what kind of city & community that we are, they are showing the nation that police can be caught on camera doing lots of good!" the musician who shared the video commented on her post.

There are some problems with this feel-good story, though. The Greensboro Police Department was plagued by accusations and evidence of racist policing practices and excessive use of force complaints, and in the coming years, the seemingly friendly Officer Alvarez would be at the heart of several of the most high-profile cases.

The true nature of policing

Greensboro, North Carolina is in some ways an unremarkable midsize American city. Once known for its thriving textile industry, the city is now better known as a cultural hub, with local leaders focused on attracting everything from college basketball tournaments to touring Broadway shows. Attracting the National Folk Festival for a three-year stand starting in 2015 dovetailed perfectly with this rebranding. 

But the very next month in a front-page Sunday exposé, the New York Times revealed a widespread pattern of racial disparities in the Greensboro Police Department's practices in everything from traffic stops to marijuana arrests. To some residents, the news was shocking. But not to many others.

Stories of almost 40 Black and Latino police officers arguing that they'd been racially discriminated against within the department had been in the local headlines for years. 

In a high profile 2014 incident, Greensboro police shot and killed Chieu Di Thi Vo, just one of several cases where activists argued police didn't need to resort to violence. In subsequent years, some residents would argue the dancing officer Samuel Alvarez was part of the problem, too. 

A mother accused Alvarez of using excessive force against her then 15-year-old son at the city's 2016 Fourth of July celebrations downtown. A couple months later during the second National Folk Festival, Alvarez again allegedly used excessive force against young Black men outside a downtown bar. A video of the incident posted on YouTube shows him slamming a man into a parked car before sweeping his legs out from under him, causing the man to apparently fall face-first on the sidewalk pavement 

Then, in 2018, multiple homeless Greensboro residents reported being harassed by police, naming Alvarez as a  particular problem officer. Just a couple months later during the city's 2018 run of its annual folk festival, police "hogtied" a homeless man named Marcus Smith, who died. The state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Protesters would later call Smith "Greensboro's George Floyd." 

Alvarez was not involved in Smith's death. Despite the accusations he's faced in multiple cases, he's still celebrated locally by many — especially white liberals, it seems — as the dancing cop.

In 2017, he salsa danced on stage at the festival, to the delight of some observers. Last year, a new photo of him made the rounds, dancing with a different jubilant woman in the front row as an Afro-Cuban band entertained a crowd of thousands. This year's festival had to be held virtually, but Alvarez still made the news in 2020, this time for apparently intimidating critics at a Greensboro City Council meeting.

In response to questions about Officer Alvarez, the Greensboro Police Department told me that "if there were any complaints against Officer Alvarez they would be considered a part of his personnel file and not a public record."

Regardless of the specifics of each case, it's clear that Officer Alvarez's record is more complicated than the happy, fleet-footed image he's cultivated over the years. And the problem is, he's not alone. Remember the white "Basketball Cop" who was filmed shooting hoops with a group of Black teenagers in Florida? After the video went viral, Officer Bobby White made the talk-show circuit and linked up with stars like Shaq. But like Alvarez in North Carolina, the "Basketball Cop" is also separately accused of excessive force.

Herein lies the issue; the problems with policing in America aren't confined to a few "bad apples." It is systemic. The rot within the institution of policing is so insidious that even supposed good-guy Officer Friendly cops are implicated. 

By assuming that there are good cops and bad cops, we fundamentally misunderstand both the function of policing and also of human nature. It isn't that you must believe that these viral cops are either altruistic, well-intentioned police whose good name has been besmirched or, alternately, dangerous storm troopers. The truth is probably that Alvarez and White unintentionally landed in the spotlight for genuinely leaning into their better selves, publicly exhibiting their more relaxed and empathetic sides. That doesn't preclude them from being capable of violence, misconduct, or a warrior-cop mentality in other instances.

Individual officers are, of course, capable of acts of kindness and humanity — the apparent sentiment behind the videos — but that doesn't inoculate them from an often-deadly police culture. 

"Police officers in the United States believe that they must maintain control from beginning to end of every single contact they make," Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper told NPR. "They're taught that by their culture. In some cases, they're taught that in the police academy." 

Police are trained for war zones, and they're often militarized like it, too. They're taught to shoot first and to fear the public. They operate in a culture of impunity, in part due to "qualified immunity," which shields officers from legal liability when they break the law. And they're tasked with doing a million things — such as addressing homelessness — that shouldn't fall under their purview in the first place.

In a profoundly unequal society rife with institutional racism, police are routinely called to uphold an unjust social order. That's reflected in the origins of Southern police forces that first formed as slave patrols, or their historic role in suppressing this country's labor movement. From upholding white supremacist Jim Crow laws to much more current examples, the institution of policing and the culture that fuels it aren't designed to uphold justice, but rather to enforce the status quo.

That's the problem with sharing these kinds of "heartwarming" videos of police; they belie the true nature of policing in this country and wash the subjects of any complicity.  It may only be natural to want to look for examples of officers doing good and celebrating them for it. But these videos function as little more than propaganda for police departments. 

In many cases, like Greensboro, the department is long fraught with allegations of racism and violence. In this context, sharing videos of the Dancing Cop — or any other viral iteration of the good-cop narrative — ultimately functions as "reputation laundering," washing off the image of violent, reckless police officers and replacing it with a palatable-yet-fake narrative.

That might make some people feel a little better about their city's police force, but it only makes justice harder to attain.

Eric Ginsburg is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. He previously served as the managing editor and staff writer at Triad City Beat newspaper in Greensboro, where he covered the police department for years. He assisted the New York Times with their 2015 investigative report on the department.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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