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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

East Bay Cop Hides Behind T-Swift

An Alameda County police officer tried to silence copwatchers with “Blank Space,” but he couldn’t shake them off.


SF Weekly

Is it going to be forever? Or will this go down in flames? That’s what activists are thinking after an Alameda County police officer showed off a relatively new damage control strategy intended to prevent reform-minded organizers from sharing clips of cops on YouTube and other social media platforms.

Outside the Oakland courthouse Tuesday, June 29, Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) organizer James Burch found himself in a confrontation with Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. David Shelby over the organization’s placement of several banners advocating for the conviction of a former San Leandro police officer in an officer-involved shooting. Shortly after the confrontation began, another organizer with APTP began filming.

Throwing his hands up momentarily in a gesture of innocence, the sergeant chose not to tell the APTP member to put the phone away, or bat the device out of their hands. Rather, Shelby pulled out his own phone, tapped the screen, and began playing a pop hit most of us haven’t heard since 2014: Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.”

The officer was using a tactic that made national headlines when a Beverly Hills police officer did a similar thing in February of this year. Playing well-known pop music means that any video of the interaction uploaded to YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook can be flagged by the platform’s artificial intelligence for copyright infringement — and, often, taken down. Shelby is transparent in his actions, explaining his intent multiple times in the video to the two APTP organizers before finally looking directly into the camera and saying: “I’m playing my music so that you can’t post on YouTube.”

The Beverly Police Officer, Sgt. Billy Fair, went with “Santeria” by Sublime. The choice was somewhat apropos, given the Long Beach reggae-punks popularity with flat-brimmed frat boys who live by the bro code — which, incidentally, is not that different from the way police unions operate. The tune also glorifies and trivializes gun violence.

There’s also something to be said for Sgt. Shelby’s choice of artist: A pop star who — through no fault of her own — was once identified as an “Aryan Goddess” by a cadre of neo-Nazi Swifties.

To her credit, T-Swift began urging her fans to “elect people who will fight against police brutality” last year, and it’s probably safe to say she and her people aren’t on Shelby’s side. Nevertheless, her management team’s militant enforcement of her intellectual property rights means that hardly anyone who hasn’t paid up can get away with using her music professionally.

The activists were at the courthouse Tuesday in partnership with a group called Justice 4 Steven Taylor, named for a man who was killed amidst a mental health crisis by former San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher on April 18, 2020. Taylor was shot inside a Walmart within one minute of police arriving on the scene. Activists and the Alameda County District Attorney allege that the officer used “unreasonable” deadly force. Fletcher is pleading not guilty to charges of manslaughter.

Organizers and friends and family of Steven Taylor had gathered around the courthouse to listen to live audio of the pre-trial hearing.

When APTP organizers recorded Sgt. Shelby using the controversial tactic, they thought they caught him red handed — the Beverly Hills officer’s actions earlier this year were widely condemned. Police should have no fear of being filmed if they are doing their jobs, critics say. Additionally, APTP policy director James Burch believes the officer may himself be committing a copyright violation. “I don’t think that’s allowed to be an official policy, and I don’t think the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is cleared to use Taylor Swift’s audio,” he says.

Burch’s legal argument is probably a stretch: unless an officer playing a song from his iPhone constitutes “public performance,” it’s likely within the boundaries of what’s considered “fair use” for copyrighted material. However, Sgt. Ray Kelly, public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff confirms that such an act seems to contradict their code of conduct, which emphasizes professionalism.

Filming a police officer is lawful, Kelly says, and if someone files a formal complaint, the agency will conduct a full investigation into the incident.

“That’s not our tactic, that’s not something we do, that’s not how we conduct business, and, as a matter of fact, if this goes public, we will make sure that people do not engage in that,” Kelly said on Wednesday.

Looks like Shelby might not be able to shake this off as easily as he’d hoped.

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