Officer Kay Kalkbrenner sits down in front of a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, lip-syncs to Bishop Briggs’ “River” and sensually tosses his head as he removes his police cap. He’s fully into it, throwing his hands into the air and running one hand down his neck as the chorus blares: “Shut your mouth, baby, stand and deliverrrr!”
He opens the box, lustily grabbing a trio of donuts before shark-biting into the side of a chocolate glazed. It’s a little bit goofy-cringe, the kind of content I’d expect on the Facebook page of a small-town police department. Instead, it found a viral home on TikTok, racking up 100,000 views in a day.
Sometimes it’s dancing (so, so many cops dancing!). Other times it’s just thirst-trapping and preening in the patrol car. Often, it’s jokes about the job, whether it’s about traffic stops, arrest warrants or even domestic violence calls. No matter that traffic stops are a deeply racist form of policing, or that there are huge biases in how warrants are served, or that police are terrible at helping the lion’s share of domestic violence victims (and themselves are responsible for a concerning level of abuse in their own homes). In the world of TikTok, these concerns fade away for a more pastel-shaded world of policing; the viral trend fitting neatly into a long history of “copaganda,” both overt and subtle, in pop culture over the last 40 years.
It’s not much of a surprise that cops are on the platform, gyrating and grinning and otherwise presenting themselves as deeply normal, fun-loving members of society. But it doesn’t feel like a genuine exercise in personal expression. Instead, the uniformed mass feels like one big amorphous project to try and cleanse some of the sins that have been aired publicly over the past year — a year in which we saw so many cops rally around the institution rather than choose to confront its flaws in earnest. I mean, the agenda is right there in the hashtag: #HumanizeTheBadge. And if scrolling through the results is any indication, TikTok copaganda feels like sleight-of-hand, distracting people while others struggle with what a post-policing world should look like.
It’s fueled by the same strain of self-righteous Blue Lives Matter attitudes, upheld by people who got into police work because they want to save the world. And that’s the narrative that plays out again and again, with officers trying to make a point about how compassionate, funny or merciful they are, without much reflection on the people they have hurt on the job, or all the times they kept silent about an unethical act. Even the cops who use TikTok to speak out make you wonder: If you oppose what happened to George Floyd, will you also work to ensure it never happens in your agency? Or would you rather just post about it?
This isn’t new to TikTok, or even the internet: Copaganda has ruled supreme in pop culture since cable TV blew up in the 1980s. Whether it’s movies like Die Hard, TV dramas like Law & Order, documentary-style shows like Cops and Live PD, or cringe dancing videos on the internet, mainstream culture has always had an appetite for pro-cop content. News channels have been a massive purveyor of copaganda, quoting uncritically from police forces, portraying Black people as stereotypical criminals and running fawning puff pieces on cops. No wonder we all consume copaganda so easily. Hell, even Spike Lee went for it while making BlacKkKlansman, brokering a $219,000 contract with NYPD to assist their public image.
Each officer has their own legitimate reason for wanting to post, but their uncritical contributions add to a tapestry of the copaganda-industry complex, fundamentally working to whitewash the darkness of the job at hand. These clips so often portray community engagement as a cartoon tale of smiles, solidarity and occasional sacrifice, without depicting any nuance of the real challenges that the communities they patrol face. It’s why copaganda feels so insidious — it’s a decentralized hearts-and-minds operation that mostly just benefits the status quo.
All of these depictions, including cutesy TikTok videos, exemplify the goodness of the individual officer while omitting the context of their work. The problem is, we don’t need any more convincing that a single cop on the right day can be good; we already understand that the harm of policing comes in the monolithic cultural and legal protections that allow individual cops to kill innocent people but then cower behind a collective blue line when it comes to accountability.
Congregating behind a hashtag like #HumanizeTheBadge merely helps formulate a Good Cop® archetype, perfectly packaged for consumption by those who fly Thin Blue Line flags and want a handsome, grinning antidote for all that anti-cop ruckus outside. It’s why Jody Armour, a lawyer, professor and expert in criminal justice, tells me that he can’t help but view these viral TikTok accounts as more than hollow, performative symbolism.
“It brings to mind how in the summer of 2020, you saw some officers kneeling with Black Lives Matter protesters. But then some of those same officers struck protesters with batons the very next day,” Armour tells me. “A narrative is a powerful thing. You get drawn into a narrative and you tend to feel what the protagonists feel. I don’t know what good it is to consume more of the cop’s perspective, which we’ve been fed day-in and day-out in popular media.”
In that context, what good does this copaganda — lighthearted or otherwise — serve? The evidence suggests that despite all the protests of 2020 and years prior, the vast majority of police departments across the U.S. aren’t reducing their budgets in any fashion. In many cases, they’re not even interested in interfacing with activists and community leaders who want significant change.
Meanwhile, TikTok cops are out here getting caught doing heinous actions while propping up a smiling avatar of themselves online. That’s the story of Anthony Johnson, an officer who has 1.2 million followers but got caught on camera shoving and sucker-punching a Black man who was speaking to another officer, all while holding a shotgun.
I can’t help but think of the life and death of Devonte Hart, the young Black boy who went viral for hugging a cop amid the Ferguson protests in 2014. The photo was held up as a heartfelt image of American unity, but the actual system failed Hart, letting him get killed at the hands of his abusive adoptive mother. It’s an apt metaphor for the darkness of copaganda, and how so many seem content to call for coming together and understanding in the face of a system that’s breaking apart.
#HumanizeTheBadge could mean something more. But for now, on TikTok, it means lip-syncing and donut jokes, in an endless stream, as far as the finger can scroll.