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Activists and law enforcement alike are denouncing an Alameda County Sheriff’s sergeant who played a Taylor Swift song during a conversation with activists to attempt to keep the video from being posted online.

The incident took place outside a courthouse in Oakland last month while members of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project and Justice for Steven Taylor Coalition gathered to listen to the pre-trial hearing of Jason Fletcher, a former San Leandro police officer who in April 2020 used a Taser stun gun and then fatally shot Taylor, 33, in a Walmart while Taylor was experiencing a mental health crisis. Fletcher has been charged with felony manslaughter in Alameda County.

In the video, APTP policy director James Burch is speaking with the sergeant, whose badge identifies him as D. Shelby of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. According to Burch, the sergeant had approached the group to ask them to move a set of banners. The group had already moved the banners once, Burch said, and he was attempting to understand why they were being asked to move them again.

Midway through the conversation, the sergeant pulled out a cellphone and began playing a song by Taylor Swift.

“You can record all you want, I just know it can’t be posted on YouTube,” the sergeant can be heard saying.

Later in the video, when Burch stated that the sergeant was playing music to keep the video from being posted online, the sergeant replied, “That’s correct.”

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, copyright owners like Swift can submit complaints to YouTube to get videos with their copyrighted content taken down. YouTube also employs a system called Content ID that can automatically block uploads that match other copyrighted works.

Given the innocuous topic of the conversation, Burch said he couldn’t understand why the sergeant would try to keep the video from being posted online, but said the move “speaks volumes about how they perceive their relationship with the People of Oakland.”

As of Friday, the video by the APTP — which has been posted to YouTube — has accumulated over 195,000 views. Burch said the account has not received any Content ID or DMCA claims on the video.

This isn’t the first time California police have been accused of playing copyrighted music to keep videos from being posted online, but according to the APTP, it is the first time a law enforcement official has been recorded admitting to doing so.

“We know that the people will always do a better job holding law enforcement accountable. The only accountability measure I trust when it comes to law enforcement is the power of people pressure.”

James Burch, Anti Police-Terror Project

In February, Los Angeles-based activist Sennett Devermont claimed a Beverly Hills police sergeant played copyrighted music while Devermont was live-streaming on Instagram to keep the video from being posted on social media. Other social media platforms like Instagram also employ policies governing the use of copyrighted music.

“It’s my hope that this encounter will discourage law enforcement officers from this tactic or any other tactic that attempts to utilize DMCA copyright or any other social media-related technicalities to prevent us from providing the people with transparency,” Burch said.

According to Alameda County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly, the video has been referred to the office’s internal affairs bureau for investigation. In a statement, Kelly said it was “not approved behavior” and “will not happen again.”

Even with an internal investigation, Burch said public pressure is still necessary to hold the sergeant and the sheriff’s office accountable.

“We know that the people will always do a better job holding law enforcement accountable,” Burch said. “The only accountability measure I trust when it comes to law enforcement is the power of people pressure.”