The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An officer played a Taylor Swift song to keep his recording off YouTube. Instead it went viral.

An Alameda County sheriff’s sergeant in Oakland appeared to play music on his phone on June 29 in an effort to avoid having footage of him uploaded on YouTube. (Video: APTP Sacramento)

When James Burch and several activists began filming a sheriff’s deputy during a confrontation on the Alameda County courthouse steps in Oakland, Calif., this week, the officer caught the group by surprise. He pulled out his phone and started blaring Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit single “Blank Space.”

Confused, Burch asked: “Are we having a dance party?”

After he and the other activists pressed the officer about what he was doing, the deputy — identified by local media as Sgt. David Shelby — said, “You can record all you want, I just know it can’t be posted on YouTube.”

He was referring to YouTube’s automated copyright system, which detects and removes unauthorized protected material — such as a popular song — from being uploaded to the Internet.

The officer’s plan, however, appears to have been a misfire. The video captured by Burch and his organization — the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project, which seeks to hold local police departments accountable — ended up amassing more than 680,000 views on Twitter by Friday morning. A version uploaded to YouTube was still there Friday morning as well, with more than 110,000 views.

The irony was not lost on the Alameda County sheriff's office.

“The officer was trying to be a little smart, and it kind of backfired,” Sgt. Ray Kelly, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told The Washington Post. “Instead of censoring it, it made it go viral.”

Kelly said that, although the deputy is still at work, the matter has been referred to the office’s internal affairs department and is being investigated. There is no policy barring an officer from doing what’s shown in the video, but “there is a code of conduct on how we should carry ourselves in public,” Kelly said, adding that the sheriff’s office does not “condone” the deputy’s behavior.

“This is not a good look for law enforcement,” he said. There is a “serious lesson learned here.”

The tactic used by Shelby is one law enforcement personnel have tried before. But some of the attempts seem to amount to prime cases of the “Streisand Effect,” a term used to describe an attempt to hide or censor information that actually makes it more widespread.

In February, a police officer in Beverly Hills, Calif., reportedly turned on Sublime’s “Santeria” in an attempt to prevent a video from being uploaded to Instagram, according to Vice News. The video, however, remains on the social media site.

Another Beverly Hills officer used a similar tactic weeks earlier when he played “In My Life” by the Beatles, Vice reported. The video, filmed by the same activist, was not posted online.

Regardless of how effective the tactic is, observers say it signals concerning behavior from law enforcement personnel at a time when the public is demanding more accountability from police.

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“This does seem to be a trend right now,” Chessie Thacher, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, told The Post. “People have the right to film the police, and efforts by the police to infringe on this right are unconstitutional.”

Thacher added: “So if they’re using copyright laws to prevent people from exercising their right — and amplifying what they’re seeing — then that’s a real problem.”

On Tuesday morning, Burch and a coalition of several dozen activists went to the Alameda County courthouse to observe a pretrial hearing for Jason Fletcher, a former San Leandro, Calif., police officer who faces a charge of voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing Steven Taylor, a man wielding a baseball bat inside Walmart, in April 2020.

Because of coronavirus limitations, Burch told The Post, the activists stood on the courthouse steps and watched a live stream being broadcast from inside the courtroom. They had also set up banners on a courthouse retaining wall. Four Alameda County sheriff’s deputies later told them to remove the banners, so Burch said his group displayed the banners on the steps.

“We didn't think anything of it until the four law enforcement officers came back and told us that the banners could not be on the stairs because they were a tripping hazard,” Burch said. “So that's where the video picks up.”

As Burch quibbles with Shelby about the banners in the video, the deputy takes out his phone and turns on the Taylor Swift song.

After the deputy admits it was an attempt to prevent the video from being posted to YouTube, Burch asks him: “Is there an administrative regulation for this right now?”

“Not that I know of,” Shelby says.

“Is that procedure?” Burch asks.

“I’m just listening to music, sir,” Shelby says.

Reflecting on the incident, Burch agreed that the officer’s action backfired. Still, he said, he remains troubled.

“Any tactic by law enforcement to attempt to either prevent activists from recording or chill our attempts to do so is incredibly concerning. After the murder of George Floyd, everyone understands why organizers and activists record our interactions with law enforcement.”

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