In physics, the term "observer effect" describes how examining a phenomenon can change it, because of the influence of the instruments used to make the observation. Something similar happens to human interactions when cameras are present. The irresistible impulse to play to the lens makes human behavior mannered and self-aware. Every statement becomes a performance, every gesture a pose.
The steady onslaught of police propaganda shows of the "COPS" genre constitutes the worst and most dangerous form of "reality" television.
A couple of years ago I coined the term "COPS Effect" to describe how pseudo-documentary programs glorifying the police abet irresponsible (but highly telegenic) use of paramilitary tactics. The presence of cameras during law enforcement operations often triggers a condition I call "Showtime Syndrome," a frequently lethal tendency toward self-dramatization on the part of police.
Conflict and danger, whether genuine or contrived, make for high-impact television; de-escalation and sober, careful police work do not. Thus embedding camera crews with the police – only officially vetted personnel from State-aligned media are suitable; Mundanes with cameras are subject to summary arrest – creates a perverse incentive for "peace" officers to choose an approach more likely to result in avoidable death, injury, and property destruction.
Aiyana Jones, the 7-year-old girl shot to death early Sunday (May 17) during a SWAT raid on her Detroit home, was almost certainly a victim of the "COPS Effect."
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