A black screen with white text that reads An EPD Digitial Newsroom ProductionPolicing & Prisons

How Copaganda Works: A Look at Eugene Police Department’s Digital Newsroom

Government meetings are boring, and I suspect it’s on purpose. The more boring the meeting, the less likely anyone will want to pay attention. City hall and municipal reporters do not get paid nearly enough to endure what they do for a living.

The City of Eugene’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Police Policy has extremely boring meetings. Considering that they are tasked with recommending reforms to the Eugene Police Department’s myriad use of force policies, this is somewhat disappointing. Their meetings are only about two hours long but there are long stretches during which nothing happens. This makes them feel three times as long. In four meetings, there have already been at least four presentations from active duty police officers or department officials. It sounds more like a lecture on what the police do than a fiery debate over the meaning of public safety. 

If I’m being honest, I have little hope for meaningful reform coming from this committee. I feel obliged to cover it anyway. 

While watching a pre-recorded video provided to the committee by the EPD, I became very bored.  In the video, Sgt. Ryan Molony–the man in charge of determining what tactics the local cops use–spends 51 very dry minutes presenting a PowerPoint on the department’s rules on using force. 

After about 30 minutes of learning about each departmental loophole available to EPD officers who shoot someone, I absent-mindedly clicked on the EPD’s profile page.

There are 101 videos on the EPD’s Vimeo channel. They have 45 followers–almost none of which are real people–and follow two accounts, the City’s and MetroTV, the government-run TV station for Eugene, Springfield, and Lane County.

Did you know that the city has a government-run TV station?

Technically speaking, the Vimeo channel belongs to the EPD’s Public Information Office–their in-house PR firm (or propaganda bureau, depending on who you ask). As a result, anything released on this channel is done with the public in mind. 

The PIO is led by Melinda McLaughlin, whose job is to put out press releases and respond to journalists’ questions about EPD’s use of social media to surveil protesters.

So naturally, I started perusing through the videos on the channel.

The first few were pretty obvious cop fare–mostly clips of Chief Chris Skinner making some public statement or short videos about the department’s “Safety Town” initiative to teach people how to use crosswalks properly. One was a video announcing that the EPD was painting their cars and motorcycles pink to show their awareness of Breast Cancer Awareness month. I scrolled through several dozen videos without looking too closely and saw nothing particularly interesting.

Then I saw this.

That’s interesting. That’s a video showing evidence of a pretty strong bond between the Eugene Police Department and the Elk Horn Brewery–a rumored rallying point for the city’s local militia and “patriot” movement. 

That’s members of EPD’s SWAT and Crisis Response Teams smoking turkeys in Stephen Sheehan’s kitchen nearly three years before Elk Horn and its owner began taking heat for their anti-houseless activism and the recent Uprising against the police.

Alone, this is an act of charity traded for public legitimacy. But in the context of the last three years, this is a pattern. 

That was an interesting video to watch, and it got me wondering what other interesting things might be hiding among EPD’s Vimeo page. So I watched all 101 videos to find out.

And I learned much more than any presentation could teach.

The Early PSAs

The EPD’s Vimeo account had humble beginnings. 

The first video they ever uploaded to the site was a PSA on burglary prevention, but my personal favorite is their PSA on texting while driving, in which a CGI skateboarder gets completely obliterated by a distracted driver.

This first crop of content released by the department were all variations on this theme. Each one has the same cock-rock stock music playing in the background while a white person does something dumb to make a crime or terrible accident befall them. The narrator’s voice sounds like a stern but sarcastic father who just wants what’s best for his kids. 

They are neither good nor bad–just derivative of other PSA campaigns in other cities much like Eugene. I have no idea where these would’ve been played or where they might have been shared in 2012–a year I truly cannot fathom anymore. 

There are six of these PSAs. None of them have more than 50 views, and I fear I am responsible for at least 20 percent of them.

But these appear to be mostly harmless. They’re just little 30 second videos made by a local production company for the local police department warning local folks about the danger posed by local car thieves, distractions, and prowlers in the night. Police departments and public safety officials feel compelled to release PSAs all the time and yet, most of us have learned to ignore them.

But PSAs, as common as they are, don’t allow a police department to tell its own story about the communities they claim to serve. They may alert the public to a growing problem or some vague danger, but they leave out the perspective of cops dealing with that supposed danger or problem. 

Public service announcements don’t build a brand–but propaganda does.

Youth Gangs, Weird Cartoons, and Award Shows

In 2013, the EPD released 2023-1001 EPD-2013 Gang Symposium–their first attempt at a proper propaganda video. Though it’s titled like an experimental Belgian film or sketchy Limewire download, it’s actually a five minute recap of the 2013 Lane County Gang Prevention Symposium.

A stark departure from their earlier releases, it shows a police department preparing to pivot into the power contained in buzzwords like “community” and “listening.” 

The cock-rock stock music has been replaced by the calmer music found in corporate training videos, and the narrator has a more gentle, neutral, tone. There are police officers in the video, but they are hardly the focus. There are also plenty of people of color in the video, but only two ever speak on camera.

But for all the pleasant words and music, it’s easy to miss what was really happening there. 

The narrator boasts about having over 300 community members in attendance, which is 300 people who spent several hours being told–and then talking to each other about–the growing threat of youth gangs in Eugene. 

At 1:23, there’s testimony from a young person who was “surprised to hear” that there were “hundreds of gang members in Lane County.” This was immediately followed by testimony from an older person who worried that Eugene didn’t take the threat of gangs seriously because the city is “liberally above that.”

“Ignorance can lead to a lot of problems,” the woman said.

Though the police are hardly mentioned, the last person heard in the video is Pete Kerns, the then-Chief of Police. He is the chief, but he is in plain clothes. I’d assume he was a bank teller or H&R Block employee. The chief talks of preventing crime and how good it is for future generations. Of all the smart people in this video, he is the smartest, because he has the necessary experience.

And he knows how to make the city believe him.

This was their first bold attempt, but it would take a long time for them to take another stab at proper copaganda. 

The next was a highly-produced attempt to get people to license their pets using the classic “little boy loses dog” trope. The next year came four very weird cartoons with a narrator who takes a fresh and sassy approach to narrating public safety videos.

Then, in 2016, EPD elevated their propaganda game by releasing Eugene Police Department – 2016 Award Ceremony (Metro Television)

If Gang Symposium showed the sensitive side of the EPD’s crime prevention, 2016 Award Ceremony was the department flexing its muscles. 

This video builds upon the lessons learned in 2013–like the importance of words like “community”–and adds a shot of adrenaline. There are once again testimonials, but from supposedly random people the camera crew found on the streets of Eugene. 

The voices of a very old couple, a Black man, a college student, and several middle-aged white women are laid over sharply edited footage of cops in action. Ib Hamide, a local Muslim leader and businessman, speaks to the camera about bad apples and how the department has overcome them. School and business officials appear on screen to boast of the EPD’s professionalism. While a woman speaks of moving back home to find it safer than ever, a SWAT unit trains with their rifles and flash bangs. 

At one point, Officer Aaron Johns appears on-screen while someone praises his work as a school resource officer at Churchill High School. 

Three years before appearing in this video, Johns shot and killed a man in the parking lot of the very same high school. Three years after appearing in this video, Johns would be one of the officers involved in the murder of Charlie Landeros.

It all seems so blatant. But I am not the intended audience of this video. It’s presumably a video for an EPD awards ceremony, and so its audience is the cops, cop backers, and the kind of media that maintains close contact with the cops themselves. This is EPD patting themselves on the back and telling themselves that the testimony of these half-dozen people shows that the whole city loves and appreciates them.

But propaganda isn’t always about changing minds. It’s often about maintaining the expectations of minds you already have.

The Fear Era

Of course, there was a paradigm shift in 2016. Hope and change became fear and hate. The power structure of the United States, which needed no help being cruel and unusual, became all the more sinister when the fascists began to plot.

It was slow to come to Eugene, but it came all the same. 

After 2016 Award Ceremony, there came a short video on EPD’s Community Outreach and Response Team, or CORT, which portrays itself as a compassionate outreach program for the city’s chronically unhoused. 

Officer Jose Alvarez compares the city’s housing crisis to the myth of Sisyphus. The cops tout the program and give secondhand testimony of how their work has led many to redemption. Not one unhoused person is heard speaking in the video.

Then came raw footage of Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow justifying the police shooting of Edgar Rodriguez, who had called EPD for help with a fight in his house and ended up getting shot anyway. She chuckles nervously throughout the video, allowing detectives to walk her through the events that led to the shooting and paint the victim as a drunk. 

There were a couple of other PSAs about driving in the snow and why one shouldn’t drive drunk on the Fourth of July. These are not goofy or corny, but vaguely threatening–the sound of handcuffs being slapped on a DUII perpetrator is used as punctuation.

EPD even put out 20 seconds of surveillance camera footage in hopes of catching a pair of vandals who poured paint all over a tennis court.

The chronically unhoused. Drunks holding guns and driving cars. People unprepared for driving in a snowstorm. Teenaged vandals fucking up tennis courts. All threats to the stability and order of the City of Eugene’s peaceful existence in the heart of the valley–all threats that the Eugene Police Department is working diligently to eliminate.

But the EPD is more than a reactionary force. As Chief Kerns said in Gang Symposium, the department believes in preventing crime and avoiding danger through outreach, research, and proactive policing–especially with young people. 

Enter Safety Town – Session 1.

Safety Town is a two week summer camp that aims to teach kindergarten-age kids the basics of staying safe in a scary, hostile world. By the time this video was released, there had been 13 years worth of Safety Towns, but none had been filmed. Session 1 is the original, and it reveals the most about what the EPD sets out to do with this project. It is the Star Wars: A New Hope of EPD propaganda videos–messy and uneven, but ambitious nonetheless.

According to the police themselves, “this program covers topics such as pedestrian safety, traffic safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, water safety, fire safety, personal safety, poison prevention, water safety, school safety and much, much more!” (Emphasis added.)

And you know, that’s fine. Sometimes, a five-year-old has to be sat down and told how to cross the street without getting creamed by someone on a cell phone or how to pet a police-trained German Shepherd without getting bit. 

But there is so much more to Safety Town than a grown man dropping melons from atop a ladder, and, for all the useful safety tips taught to little kids, there is a pervasive sense of police normalization. 

Throughout the 11 minute video, which appears to have been stitched together in iMovie, there are shots of children being placed atop police motorcycles and sitting in the back of police cars. 

Officer Aaron Johns–who had already killed a man by the time this video was made–is featured leading a procession of children into a police cruiser. Later, the kids create police hats and then pose with officers when they “graduate” from Safety Town.

Maybe it’s all harmless, and I’m looking into it too much. It is possible that there’s nothing nefarious in trying to keep kids safe in the world. 

But in the graduation scene, around 8:45,  a key detail was revealed by EPD Capt. Sherri Meisel. She says that many of the teenage volunteers at Safety Town were once five-year-old campers, themselves, many years earlier. 

At five, these kids received two weeks of exposure to police officers and began to normalize their all-encompassing existence in their everyday lives. By the time they reached their teen years, that exposure felt so normal that they, in turn, helped normalize policing to a new generation of kids.

A parent’s greatest fear, I presume, is that something terrible might befall their child, and so they will do anything to prevent that harm. That’s understandable. But the world has become so scary that being a good and watchful parent is no longer enough to protect a child. 

Excess fear of some vague “other” has been successfully injected into the hearts and minds of American families, and so they rely on the comfort supposedly presented by police to help train their children to remain safe. 

And that’s what’s truly chilling.

21st Century Digital Cops

On May 2, 2018, Chris Skinner was sworn in as the new Chief of the Eugene Police Department. I was there that day, covering the ceremony in a big conference room on campus for my college newspaper. I’m pretty sure I was behind the camera in this video, listening to Skinner’s spiel and taking notes.

Skinner, like many top cops, loves to speak of community and emotion and relationships. He came from Richland, Washington as a plain-spoken man with big ideas. In this video, shot shortly after he gave his first speech as chief, he says that he was “overwhelmed” by the ceremony of it all, and that he had no idea this was “such a big deal” for the city. 

Chris Skinner is fluent in the comforting language of reform–the ideal man to lead a police department in a liberal city like Eugene. 

To the city that had just hired him, Skinner represented the future of American policing. He has embraced the tenets of 21st century policing: a vague list of suggestions for police departments who want to become more engaged and entangled in the communities they watch over. 

But for this vision of a modern-day police department to come to life, Skinner needed more money and resources. Inversely, if they didn’t get it, the people of Eugene might find themselves without assistance when they need it most.

So EPD’s propaganda machine got to work quickly. Within a few months of his ascension to the chiefdom, the department released Community Safety System, a manifesto of sorts that warned viewers that police and emergency services were seriously understaffed. Of all the videos I watched, this one was probably the most shamelessly propagandistic.

But it worked! Skinner’s approach to policing resonated with citizens who felt like Eugene’s various crises were spiraling out of control. In the video, a constant stream of friendly officers–community service officers and crime prevention specialists–sold the people on his goals and the idea that the department had turned a corner for the better. 

Images of friendly police officers serving lattes and Christmas shopping with children really sold the community policing angle, too.

The propaganda even started to work on me. 

Hours of watching videos released by the police department wore me down. By the time I watched Skinner lead a small orchestra, I began to wonder whether I was blowing everything out of proportion. It became possible, in my mind, that Skinner’s EPD was really trying to make things better in Eugene. I didn’t always agree with the methods, sure, but it really began to seem like the Chief truly wanted the best for his adopted town and the people living in it.

Skinner was instrumental in this PR management. He makes, at the very least, a brief appearance in almost all the videos released after his arrival in Eugene throwing around buzzy catchphrases like “community-oriented policing” as if they were dodgeballs. 

Skinner’s straightforward speech and humble attitude helped convince the people of Eugene that their police force was hardly the same brutal State force as seen elsewhere in America.

It worked, because the city gave Skinner’s EPD eight and a half million dollars to hire more cops.

Street Crimes & Managing Dissent

EPD’s Street Crimes Unit arrived in the spring of 2019 and immediately got to work. In its first month, the SCU arrested dozens of people, busted two human trafficking operations, and seized 40,000 dollars in drug money.

To hear him tell it, Skinner had essentially created a vice squad–cops dedicated to busting “prolific” offenders and raiding drug operations. But their existence needed to be justified, so the SCU was frequently rolled-out in front of news cameras to promote their crime fighting prowess. 

Footage of scruffy addicts and dealers being arrested in a yard full of stolen bicycles is a powerful image, especially in this town. They were used as evidence that Eugene was filled with problematic people living in problematic areas causing problems for their neighbors. But thanks to the city, the EPD finally had just enough money to start dealing with them. 

To watch all these videos in chronological order is to see Eugene turn from an ideal home and recreation area to a town riddled with drug crimes and sexual deviancy. 

These short videos furthered the idea of the EPD as the local chapter of the thin blue line standing between polite society and the rabble-rousers seeking to tear it down. And while the SCU was cleaning up the streets of Eugene, Skinner maintained the PR offensive. 

He touted a report which claimed that the EPD did not stop Black and Latinx drivers and pedestrians disproportionately to white people. From Conestoga to Permanent Housing recycles old CORT footage to continue pushing a narrative of empathy toward the unhoused in Eugene. The Public Information Office even found time to promote themselves.

The channel continued to mix the positive work of EPD with the dark reality of policing, often wavering between portraying themselves as guardians of the peace and fun-loving goofballs who work closely with their community.

Then, in the early weeks of 2020, the department flexed their propaganda muscles with the release of EPD SWAT.

It is eerie that this highly-produced and choreographed trailer for a SWAT team raid came  just months before The Uprising would reach Eugene. Even more so, it is chilling to think that, in the weeks before the pandemic shuttered the city and shattered its already fragile sense of normalcy, the EPD was considering how they might flex their law and order muscles.

But it is telling that the EPD changed their tune following EPD SWAT. 

There have been no more corny community safety presentations or PSAs from the EPD’s channel in 2020. Nowadays, the stakes are far too high to waste time on distracted drivers and crime prevention tips. 

Instead, they’ve put out some slickly-produced propaganda videos that really lean into the “us vs. the world” mentality that cops love to embody. 

Eugene Police Department, for example, features a pair of cops who truly don’t understand why people are afraid of them and the work that they do.

Its follow-up, EPD – Pandemic – Honoring Heroes, follows some patrol officers while they navigate the new, invisible threat of COVID-19 and how it makes doing their job that much harder.

All of the officers in those two videos take the position that people who aren’t cops simply don’t understand what it makes to swear that oath of duty–that no one could possibly relate to the sort of pressure cops feel in the course of their duties. They are all but misunderstood humans armed with handguns. 

And all of these videos were put out before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.

Epilogue

As Eugene grappled with the reality of police violence and reckoned its relationship with race, EPD’s propaganda wing backed away from producing slick short films and focused on putting out public statements and press conferences from the chief. 

With countless anti-police demonstrations throughout the summer, Chief Skinner managed expectations and deftly avoided hard questions using the language of liberalism. He often said on camera that he was excited to participate in dialogue, so long that it was done respectfully and balanced the interests of cops and community alike. 

The PIO’s channel hosted these press conferences and public statements without additional comment. There was a series of “Virtual Safety Town” videos to assuage the concerns of parents who still wanted the cops to teach their kids how to cross the street, but EPD’s propaganda bureau laid low–even after protestors vandalized the shit out of police headquarters.

That’s a savvy decision by the EPD, because now there was no longer a need to portray EPD as anything other than cops. The battle for influence over the hearts and minds of the people of Eugene had already been fought. By the dawn of The Uprising, the lines had already been drawn–it’s either “Back the Blue” or “All Cops Are Bastards.” 

The struggles of 2020 and EPD’s relative success in keeping the protests from exploding into an active insurgency was the culmination of a successful propaganda campaign over the prior half-decade or so. 

Ask an average Eugenean about their thoughts on the EPD, and they’ll probably tell you that they’re not that bad compared to other departments. And maybe that’s true. Or maybe the people of Eugene are more susceptible to propaganda than they want to admit.

“Lying is a betrayal of the rational will,” writes philosopher Jason Stanley in his book How Propaganda Works. “But it is a different kind of betrayal of the rational will than propaganda. At least with lying, one purports to provide evidence. Propaganda is worse than that.

It attempts to unify opinion without attempting to appeal to our rational will at all.”

1 reply »

Leave a Reply