“True” Crime and the appropriation of state-recorded surveillance images in American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)

by Zachariah Anderson

In Murdaugh Murders: Deadly Dynasty (2022), documentarians proudly designate that certain appropriated sources are “actual” police-produced dashcam recordings.

Many documentarians appropriate police-produced archival materials— mugshots, crime scene photographs, dashcam videos, interrogation recordings, etc.—as supporting evidence and b-roll. As police departments invest in emerging digital surveillance technologies, documentarians gain access to a growing archive of state-produced visual representations of policing. The recent widespread adoption of one specific state-owned surveillance technology—the body-worn camera (hereafter referred to as BWC)—radically expands this audiovisual archive. How documentarians choose to deploy BWC footage and other state-produced surveillance recordings—and how these recordings are then interpreted by documentary viewers—will consequentially shape public conceptions of policing and surveillance in the twenty-first century.

In Into the Abyss (2011), director Werner Herzog appropriates the police’s crime scene video recordings to support the documentary’s narrative about the U.S. criminal justice system.

To explore the consequences of appropriating, circulating, and evaluating BWC footage and other state-produced surveillance recordings, I turn to the streaming-era true crime documentary genre. Specifically, I analyze the Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door (hereafter referred to as American Murder) (2020). In American Murder, director Jenny Popplewell constructs a narrative about Chris Watts’ shocking 2018 murders of his pregnant wife, Shanann, and two young daughters, Bella and Celeste. This true crime documentary traces many aspects of the Frederick, Colorado police department’s investigation into the victims’ disappearance, as well as Chris’ eventual confessions of infidelity and murder. While the true crime genre is filled with these kinds of horrific murder stories, which are regularly supplemented by archival materials, critics praised American Murder’s atypical

“decision to eschew the traditional form of the televised crime documentary—the datelines, the dramatic narrator and emotional interviews—to construct a narrative entirely out of archival footage.”[1]
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As American Murder’s opening title card proudly explains:

“All materials in this film were captured by police, media or uploaded to the internet. Personal footage and messages were also provided by Shanann’s family and friends."

In other words, Popplewell appropriates and recontextualizes many diverse extant sources—including Facebook posts, television news reports, convenience store surveillance images, BWC recordings, interrogation room videos, etc.—rather than record her own footage specifically for the film.

To construct its narrative about policing and crime, American Murder appropriates many photographs and videos from Shanann’s Facebook profile. American Murder appropriates many images that were originally produced as part of the national media frenzy surrounding the case.
American Murder appropriates many kinds of surveillance footage, including from a convenience store, as evidence to support its vision of policing and crime. American Murder appropriates many scenes from BWC recordings, including images of police questioning neighbors.

American Murder’s vision of policing and crime is built upon the documentary’s repurposing of many diverse archival sources, but I will focus on the specific ways this true crime documentary appropriates and recirculates state-produced surveillance footage as evidence.[2]

I argue that American Murder’s processes of appropriating and recirculating state-produced surveillance recordings exemplify how true crime documentaries frequently support the police’s twenty-first century “image work.”[3] According to Rob Mawby, this image work process refers to all of police activities that contribute to civilian understandings of policing, including public relations strategies that aim to legitimate policing and state surveillance in response to evolving public critiques and crises.[4] In the current U.S. context, the police force’s image work aims to counter the circulation of viral bystander videos depicting white police officers killing Black citizens, as well as the protests and accusations of systemic racism that follow.[5]

On the surface, American Murder’s story of a white suburban father murdering his family seems far removed from contentious twenty-first century debates about racist policing and the expansion of state surveillance. Popplewell does not appropriate any surveillance images depicting violent encounters between white officers and Black citizens (or any other overtly violent encounters)—and the film does not make explicit arguments about race or surveillance. Yet American Murder’s processes of appropriating and recirculating state-produced surveillance sources support police image work by diverting viewers’ attention away from critiques of policing’s systemic racism, redirecting fear toward a disturbing non-police threat, and naturalizing the expansion of the state’s power and surveillance as a necessary response to that threat. Specifically, American Murder’s appropriation of surveillance recordings decouples BWCs and other surveillance technologies from discourses about racist policing, presents a mythical vision of surveillance as ubiquitous and equally beneficial to all, aligns viewers with the police’s threatened perspective, and justifies officers’ actions as reasonable defenses against the dangers lurking next door.

As police departments dramatically increase spending on public relations and form strategies for countering twenty-first century critiques of racist policing, civilians will likely encounter and interpret more state-produced surveillance recordings in various settings.[6] My analysis of American Murder models a reflexive mode of engaging with appropriated police-recorded surveillance sources in true crime documentaries and elsewhere. Although American Murder’s processes of appropriation and circulation encourage a certain understanding of policing and surveillance, all viewers produce meaning through their active engagement with documentaries and the archival sources that documentarians appropriate as supporting evidence. This article’s critique of American Murder, then, is an invitation for readers to consider how they might look at (and listen to) appropriated police-produced surveillance footage in ways that emphasize and respond to, rather than perpetuate, the recordings’ roles in supporting the goal of police image work—a goal that sees policing as the only feasible defense against a dangerous world of crime.

The body-worn camera revolution

Many protests erupted after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. For example, this image presents a 2012 protest in Sanford, Florida. Media outlets have since shared this kind of image as an illustration of growing twenty-first-century activism, as in The Washington Post story titled “Trayvon Martin’s death set off a movement that shaped a decade’s defining moments."

In 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman—a civilian member of a neighborhood watch group—as they determined that Zimmerman’s choice to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin—an unarmed Black seventeen-year-old—was an act of self-defense. Following this widely debated legal decision, many social media users expressed their anger toward the U.S. criminal justice system under a concise slogan: #BlackLivesMatter.

This phrase was initially posted online to broadly organize various accusations against the justice system’s racism, as in Florida’s “stand-your-ground” laws that justified a civilian following, shooting, and killing a Black teenager armed only with a bag of Skittles. By 2014, in the wake of heavily publicized cases in which white police officers killed Black men, the growing Black Lives Matter movement began to focus its critiques more specifically on the police. The July 2014 cellphone video of New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choking and killing Eric Garner prompted more activists to move onto the streets, led to increasingly mainstreamed debates about racism in policing, and pressured politicians to respond. For many critics of U.S. policing, this bystander video of Garner’s death offered evidence of the systemic racism that paved the way for a white officer to choke and kill an unarmed Black man suspected of selling individual cigarettes.

Throughout 2014, additional police killings were protested, but activists noted that—unlike in the Garner case—there was often a lack of visual evidence to support their arguments about racist policing practices.[7] In response to 2014 cases of police violence that lacked accompanying video evidence, protestors and politicians turned to BWCs as potential solutions for documenting police interactions and holding officers accountable. For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—the city I currently call home—Democratic mayor Tom Barrett added his voice to a growing call for BWCs after officer Christopher Manney shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in April 2014. Responding to public pressure for police reform, Barrett proposed a program to fully equip the Milwaukee Police Department with BWCs by 2016. A few months later, after officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the national push for BWCs gained momentum.

Although #BlackLivesMatter is often traced to a 2013 Facebook post by Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac after the killing of Trayvon Martin, this kind of tweet illustrates how the hashtag rapidly grew and frequently highlighted the killings of Black citizens by white police officers in 2014. After the bystander video of officer Pantaleo choking and killing Garner circulated, international news media published images of widespread protests. For example, The Guardian shared a video, which included this image, in a 2014 story titled “Eric Garner: Black Lives Matter, Says New York Mayor Bill de Blasio."
After the killing of Dontre Hamilton, protestors began moving onto the streets in Milwaukee. As this image from a Fox News 6 story illustrates, protestors blocked traffic and fueled the push for BWCs and police reform in the city. After Brown’s death, as politicians were calling for BWCs, media outlets circulated images of Black Lives Matter protests. The Boston Globe shared this photograph as part of an opinion piece titled “Ferguson Must Force Us to Face Anti-Blackness.”

President Barack Obama proposed a large spending package that included partial reimbursement to police departments willing to invest in BWCs and related video storage technologies. By 2015, a national pilot program was underway with $23 million in federal funding. As Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch explained, the pilot program was created to help departments access and use BWCs “in order to enhance transparency, accountability, and credibility.”[8] By 2016, nearly half of all U.S. general law enforcement agencies had invested in BWCs.[9] Legal experts anticipated that BWC recordings would introduce some new challenges for judges, lawyers, and juries, but they expressed excitement about this “new frontier” that would offer “more verifiable evidence than eyewitness testimony.”[10] As law professor Mary D. Fan optimistically stated in 2017, the BWC “revolution” unfolding across American police departments was “also potentially revolutionary for courts, relieving the traditional reliability on testimony—often just from one side—to reconstruct events.”[11]

Although many of these earliest and loudest calls for BWCs came from activists, lawyers, and Democratic politicians seeking accountability for white police officers killing Black citizens, BWCs have since gained bipartisan support. By 2020, a poll found that ninety percent of Republicans across the country agreed that police officers should wear BWCs.[12] Whether advocates assume BWCs will document the police behaving badly or heroically, this bipartisan support is largely rooted in a shared belief that BWCs record objective visual evidence of encounters between police and civilians.[13] Yet discourses of accountability and objectivity overshadow the still limited empirical studies about BWCs, which offer mixed findings about these devices’ efficacy in reducing the state’s use of force, producing more “civil” interactions between police and the public, or holding officers accountable for their actions.[14]

By 2020, many activists and politicians were demanding that police departments accelerate BWC adoptions and create policies enforcing their activation. For example, Seattle, Washington’s King 5 News shared this 2020 image to illustrate citizens’ demand for BWCs in a news story titled “Most Washington law enforcement agencies don’t use body or dash cameras, KING 5 investigation finds.” In 2020, U.S. Republicans reacted to protests and growing critiques of policing by introducing and signing various police reform bills and executive orders, including Senate Republicans’ proposed incentives for requiring BWC implementation and President Donald Trump’s “Safe Policing for Safe Communities” order.

Because BWCs were initially described as tools for policing the police, the radical expansion of state-owned surveillance devices has contributed to a public sense that more video—even if recorded by police, rather than bystanders—will benefit everyone. This myth justifies the expansion of policing and surveillance, rather than confronting how non-white communities will be disproportionately surveilled and how this visual evidence will enter an unequal criminal justice system. Ultimately, original public pressure for BWCs diverts attention away from many of the ways the state has embraced BWCs and other emerging digital surveillance technologies as key investments in its twenty-first century image work. As Mawby explains,

“The spheres of activity in which police image work takes place include: a) operational policing; b) news management which comprises (i) reactive media relations, and (ii) proactive media relations; and c) public relations and marketing communications.”[15]

BWCs serve as especially powerful tools in this ongoing image work process because such state-owned media play a role in each sphere of a department’s activity: everyday policing operations, reactive and proactive news management, public relations, and marketing.

The police broadly point to BWC implementation as evidence of their departments’ fair and transparent daily practices. The police then selectively share BWC footage—as well as dashcam videos and other surveillance recordings—with local news stations and other media producers to proactively present their own account of events or to reactively counter allegations. Departments also upload non-violent or heroic on-the-job BWC footage to their own YouTube and social media accounts to construct a positive brand of policing.[16]

This shaky BWC footage of a 2022 police chase, which was shared with a local Milwaukee Fox news station, typifies the kinds of selective BWC images that are frequently shared with news media. After Buffalo, New York’s department released BWC footage of its officers saving individuals caught in a deadly storm, the images were recirculated and described by a television news reporter as “officers battling through the worst of the blizzard, while focusing on one goal: saving lives.”
This image of Portland, Oregon police officers kneeling with protestors in 2020 illustrates the kinds of images police departments and social media users spread online. This type of photograph, which Nashville, Tennessee’s police department posted on social media in 2020, exemplifies the kinds of images police produce and share as part of their twenty-first century image work.

These BWC recordings are shared alongside many other police-produced images, from videos of uniformed officers kneeling with protestors to feel-good photographs in paid Facebook advertisements. Critics refer to these kinds of favorable policing representations as “copaganda.”[17] As Mark Anthony Neal explains,

“copaganda actively counters attempts to hold police accountable by reinforcing the ideas that the police are generally fair and hard-working and that Black criminals deserve the brutal treatment they receive.”[18]

Viral copaganda videos of diverse groups of uniformed officers performing non-policing activities contribute to this broader picture of police as “good cops” working on behalf of all people—and an insistence that any racist police officers are simply “bad apples.”[19]

One particularly popular copaganda trend involves police departments staging lip-sync performances to hit songs. This trend presents diverse groups of officers as “good cops” that are happily working for everyone. For example, officers are seen here lip-syncing in the Norfolk, Virginia department’s “Uptown Funk” viral 2018 video.

Yet a true crime documentary’s state-produced surveillance footage, which depicts actual policing practices, might even more directly support the idea that policing tactics are good and necessary defenses against dangerous external forces.

To illustrate: American Murder appropriates BWC footage of police officers peacefully asking the Watts’ neighbors if they have any tips about the whereabouts of Shanann or her daughters. This footage—which was recorded before Chris eventually confessed to the murders—presents citizens’ concerned reactions as they receive paper flyers and respond to the police’s requests for information about missing neighbors. As officers walk door-to-door, their BWCs record citizens politely answering officers’ questions and willingly cooperating with the investigation.

Most of these neighbors are white; they do not seem afraid of the police knocking on their front doors. American Murder’s appropriated BWC recordings of pleasant interactions between police and community members only rarely offer substantive clues about the murders, but these surveillance videos provide true crime viewers with evidence that supports the documentary’s portrait of collaborative and good-natured policing practices. Of course, U.S. police officers do hand out flyers and ask the public for assistance. And, in many cases, community members provide information that helps authorities locate missing persons. However, when a documentarian appropriates and recirculates this kind of surveillance footage, the images can contribute (intentionally or not) to the police’s attempts to counter bystander videos and public critiques of racist policing. By decoupling BWCs from discourses about racism in policing, deflecting attention away from accusations that the police are a threat to Black and other minority communities, and sidestepping why these specific white suburban citizens feel safe collaborating with the police, this appropriation of BWC footage implicitly serves the goals of copaganda and the police’s image work.

American Murder’s peaceful BWC recordings of officers carrying missing-persons flyers are a far cry from the bystander videos’ depictions of violent encounters between white police officers and Black citizens that spurred public demand for BWCs. This is the point. The documentary’s appropriation and recirculation of peaceful on-the-job surveillance footage echoes the effects of copaganda: it justifies the status quo of policing policies that will continue to disproportionately criminalize and threaten non-white neighborhoods.

For example, American Murder’s BWC images of officers peacefully handing out flyers echo this kind of photograph that was circulated by Madison, Wisconsin’s police department. In one of American Murder’s rare BWC recordings of a neighbor offering a tip directly related to the case, this appropriated footage also provides another kind of evidence supporting a vision of policing as fair, peaceful, and collaborative.

While many scholars have studied how fictional representations of the criminal justice system further the goals of copaganda, it is also necessary to analyze how true crime documentarians’ appropriations of state-produced surveillance recordings specifically support the police’s image work.[20] Even if BWC footage or other police-produced surveillance footage is used to hold abusive officers accountable in extremely rare cases, the so-called BWC revolution has not overthrown the racist and abusive structures of policing. Instead, as American Murder demonstrates, the BWC revolution has overthrown the prior limits on how the state can produce self-serving visual evidence—and how true crime documentaries might (re)construct a public image of policing practices as good and necessary.