When Dude-Bro Pranksters Punk the Police

Florida teens with fake beer experience two different approaches to law enforcement.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

In Clearwater, Florida, there are a few friends who go around with a video camera filming innocent pranks to amuse themselves and fans of their growing YouTube channel. Their aesthetic is surfer dude. Their sense of humor is late high school, early college. One prank consisted of sending a costumed fancy man on stilts to walk around at the beach. In another, they approach a stranger with the pickup line, "On a scale of America to North Korea how free are you tonight?" In a third, they go to a dog park with a stereo and blast the song, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" On a scale of Andorra to North Korea they are about as harmless as Denmark.*

One day they deployed their kid brothers, 15 and 16 years old respectively, to walk around at a crowded Florida beach area with the kind of novelty mugs that appear to be full of sudsy beer but are actually empty. The entire joke is the visual of these obviously underage kids walking around with what looks like beer. Very quickly, a police officer calls them over. They capture the whole scene on hidden video:

What makes this interesting is the dramatic difference in the reaction of the two police officers. The first one to confront the kids is momentarily tricked into thinking they have beer, but very quickly realizes that it was just a prank. At that point, she could have just laughed it off and let them go. Or she could've affected a friendly demeanor, smiled, and said, "Very funny guys. You got me. I know you're just trying to pull a harmless prank, but anytime you distract a police officer like this for a laugh, we're not able to be on the lookout for real bad guys, so I'd appreciate it if you don't do this again, okay?" Or even, "Come on, guys, I don't want little kids at the beach to think that the cool older teenagers are walking round with beer." It would've been easy to express even the squarest of concerns.

Instead, the police officer isn't merely humorless. She is needlessly hostile and unprofessional. What kind of adult castigates a 15-year-old for walking around without identification? What kind of adult calls a couple of high school students "retards"? Is running the identities of these kids possibly the best use of her time? That hypothetical lecture about distracting police officers from important duties is impossible to deliver once you've spent so much on-duty time unraveling a novelty mug caper. How much petty theft happened on that beach in the meantime (or how many lost tourists weren't given the directions they needed)?

As if to highlight the needless hostility in the first police officer's approach, a second police officer comes over, reacts like a normal person, and charms the teens with friendliness. They would've been receptive to any gentle reprimand he then delivered... but he walked off. If I had to write a thought bubble for him it would be, "OMG I can't handle my absurd colleague, I gotta get away from her now."

Says the first officer, who has already called the kid a retard, "My guess is you don't stay in school." Because novelty beer mug pranks are associated with dropping out?

Says officer two, "I guess you guys were the class clowns in school." Yes. Obviously. And not the kind of class clown that the principal really wants to expel—the kind that the principal can't help but like, because they're obviously goodhearted.

Finally, a third police officer arrives on the scene, totally fabricates smelling marijuana, and weirdly tries to intimidate the kids into admitting they have weed in their pockets by implying that if they just admit it he won't arrest them. (Police are allowed to blatantly lie.) Of course, they obviously don't have marijuana—as the video notes, who pranks the police while carrying illegal drugs in their pockets?

This is obviously more lighthearted than the other videos of police officers we've recently reviewed in this space. There's no danger or violence (perhaps in part because these are white kids in an affluent area—three black kids in their late teens would know damned well that they'd better not even attempt a prank like this one). But there's still a serious point to be made about effective policing. Police officers number one and three left these kids—and unbeknownst to them, their many YouTube followers—with the impression that law enforcement is needlessly hostile, petty, and humorless. They fit every negative stereotype of police officers save knee-jerk violence, and exactly none of the normal excuses applied. They faced no danger. They were not dealing with hardened criminals. They just chose to be jerks, needlessly. Whereas officer number two left them with the impression that police are friendly, goodhearted people that one might voluntarily assist and trust.

Interactions like this could affect the attitude that these kids have toward the police for their entire lives, and should shape the public's perceptions in subtle but important ways. Officers one and three damaged their profession with their behavior, especially when the video made the local TV news. Who wants their community policed by folks who react to teen pranks with f-bombs, "retard" insults, and evidence free accusations that they're drop-out potheads? Kudos to the several police officers who react reasonably to these kids in the course of their videos, and the chief in Clearwater for reacting appropriately when the video came out: he didn't take himself too seriously, noted that in fairness the kids baited the female officer, apologized for her behavior, and put a letter of reprimand in her file.

That sounds about right to me.

*There are a few pickup-line pranks that are too crude for my taste. Even Denmark isn't perfect.