How to Record the Cops

A guide to the technology for keeping government accountable

This summer the issue of recording on-duty police officers has received a great deal of media attention. Camera-wielding citizens were arrested in Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts under interpretations of state wiretapping laws, while others were arrested in New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Florida, and elsewhere based on vaguer charges related to obstructing or interfering with a police officer.

So far Massachusetts is the only state to explicitly uphold a conviction for recording on-duty cops, and Illinois and Massachusetts are the only states where it is clearly illegal. The Illinois law has yet to be considered by the state's Supreme Court, while the Massachusetts law has yet to be upheld by a federal appeals court. Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler recently issued an opinion concluding that arrests for recording cops are based on a misreading of the state's wiretapping statute, but that opinion isn't binding on local prosecutors.

In the remaining 47 states, the law is clearer: It is generally legal to record the police, as long as you don't physically interfere with them. You may be unfairly harassed, questioned, or even arrested, but it's unlikely you will be charged, much less convicted. (These are general observations and should not be treated as legal advice.)

One reason this issue has heated up recently is that the democratization of technology has made it easier than ever for just about anyone to pull out a camera and quickly document an encounter with police. So what's the best way to record cops? Here is a quick rundown of the technology that's out there.

Cameras without wireless networking capabilities are the least attractive option. If they are destroyed or confiscated, you have probably lost the damning video you just recorded, including the video documenting how your camera was confiscated or destroyed. But provided you can hold on to your camera, digital video recorders today are inexpensive, small, and wonderfully practical. The best-known everyday, easy-to-use brand right now is probably the Flip Video line, which start at $149. Even the cheapest Flips fit in your pocket, power up in about three seconds, and feature one-button recording. They are also easy to use. They include a built-in USB port and instant formatting for sites such as LiveLeak and YouTube.

Kodak has a pocket video camera for $100, and Amazon list a couple dozen different flash-memory cameras for under $50. Still too expensive? For $20, this camera sold at USBGeek is shorter than a stick of gum and shoots 640×480 video at 30 frames per second. It has a memory slot to hold up to 32GB of memory and a two-hour battery life. Or try this keychain camera. It's tiny, has the advantage of not looking much like a camera, shoots 720x480 video at 30 frames per second, and sells for all of $12 (with free shipping) at Meritline.com.

Last year's demonstrations in Iran and the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant on a subway platfom in Oakland, California were very public incidents, with dozens of cell phones taking photos and video as they happened. Authorities could not possibly have confiscated every phone camera (although in both cases they tried). But in other cases, police confiscate cameras, and when they are returned the potentially incriminating video or photos are gone. But technology is helping there too.

If you find your files or videos have been deleted once your camera has been returned, your best option is to look into recovery software, which in many cases can bring the deleted files back. Don't use the phone or camera until you've tried the software.

The better option, though, is to use a camera with networking capabilities. We're increasingly seeing spy movies-come-to-life cameras like this Bluetooth device from Looxcie, which you wear over your ear and lets you instantly email video, but the same technology is also standard now in most smart phones. The ability to store audio or video off site—to email it to friends (or yourself), or to upload it to social networking sites—is becoming more and more accessible. And it's a pretty powerful check on government, as shown by the Iran demonstrations, the Grant shooting, and the alleged police abuses shown in hundreds of videos uploaded to video sharing sites.

Qik and UStream, two services available for both the iPhone and Android phones, allow instant online video streaming and archiving. Once you stop recording, the video is instantly saved online. Both services also allow you to send out a mass email or notice to your Twitter followers when you have posted a new video from your phone. Not only will your video of police misconduct be preserved, but so will the video of the police officer illegally confiscating your phone (assuming you continue recording until that point).

Neither Qik nor UStream market themselves for this purpose, and it probably would not make good business sense for them to do so, given the risk of angering law enforcement agencies and attracting attention from regulators. But it's hard to overstate the power of streaming and off-site archiving. Prior to this technology, prosecutors and the courts nearly always deferred to the police narrative; now that narrative has to be consistent with independently recorded evidence. And as examples of police reports contradicted by video become increasingly common, a couple of things are likely to happen: Prosecutors and courts will be less inclined to uncritically accept police testimony, even in cases where there is no video, and bad cops will be deterred by the knowledge that their misconduct is apt to be recorded.

But there is still room for improvement. With both Qik and UStream, you can delete your uploaded videos from your phone, which means that if your phone is confiscated before you can turn it off (or if you keep your phone unlocked), whoever took it can get into your account and erase your evidence. One not terribly reliable way around this problem would be to encourage any of your friends or Twitter followers who happen to be online at the time to download your video the moment they get notice of it. But it would be far better if you had the option to make your videos deletable only once you've logged in from a computer. Another improvement would be the ability to "black out" the phone while it's taking video, so it isn't so obvious that you're recording.

UStream and Qik are not likely to add either function, since both are beneficial only for people who want to make surreptitious recordings. But how about an ACLU or NAACP app designed specifically for recording police? The NAACP's "All Alert" project encourages people to report incidents of police abuse through a toll-free phone number, text messages, or Twitter. But the process for registering a complaint is pretty cumbersome, and the program doesn't allow instant streaming and archiving.

Scott Morgan of Flex Your Rights, which educates people about their rights during police encounters, says his organization has been exploring the possibility of offering such a service. "I think it's a great idea," Morgan says. "We've talked to a couple developers about it. I think the problem for a small group like us is getting server space for videos and working out the networking issues." Globally, it would make great sense for an organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to develop a similar easy-to-use application, allowing people all over the world to emulate the instant documentation we saw during the protests in Iran.

The dizzying advancements in personal technology during the last decade have slipped a powerful government accountability tool into our pockets. But it happened mostly by accident. The technology was intended for other uses, and it still needs some fine tuning to work better as a protection against abuses of state power. It's hard to think of a more worthy project for a civil liberties group.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    The image accompanying this post has been accidentally deleted or lost.

  • ||

    I guess I am just a cynic. To me there is overwhelming evidence of police abuse that is constant, organized, and contenanced by police chiefs, proscutors, judges, and any politician. The disappearing recording show that there is a wide spread conspricy to thwart justice.
    The problem isn't a few rouge cops, but the apparent majority of rogue prosecutors and rogue judges who seem unable to unwilling to challenge the most preposterous excuses for some of these incidents.

  • ||

    *Cue dunphy to tell us that it just ain't so.*

  • Pip||

    Where is that fucker?

  • ||

    Busy busting "the few bad apples" I'm sure.

  • ||

    "I guess I am just a cynic"?????
    OK, I am 100% sun rises in the east, earth is round, cynic - no guessing.
    Pure cynic.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    The problem isn't a few rouge cops.

    Are you accusing the police of wearing makeup?

  • Hugh Akston||

    You would too if you were being recorded.

  • ||

    Considering that rouge is one kind of cover-up, it seems appropos.

  • ||

    The camera adds 10 inches of billyclub.

  • Almanian||

    Apparently "rogue" is the new normal. So the rogues now would be the ones NOT covering up and "losing" evidence and violating "civilians'" rights.

    Fuck tha police....

  • omg||

    You are correct. In order for the "few bad apples" argument to hold any water, every single one of those cops who did not participate in the brutal beating of Brian Mckenna should have come forward and fingered those who did. As none of them did (and indeed the University police destroyed evidence to cover up the crime), then there is absolutely no hope to salvage the current system.

  • ||

    Rogue? How can they be both a majority and rogue? If a majority of people are doing something, then it is either culture or policy.

  • k-y||

    Word play is hard.

  • JJ||

    Right. Could there be a rogue department? County? State? Country?

    Good point.

  • ||

    Globally, it would make great sense for an organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to develop a similar easy-to-use application,

    Probably the single most useful thing they could do. I'm curious as to how such a function would fit into their internal NGO dynamics, though. NGOs aren't famously about empowering The Masses (rhetoric aside); they're mostly about empowering and funding the NGO.

  • Leo Leo||

    Yeah, plus what if an Israeli uses it? That'd go against everything AI and HRW stand for.

  • cynical||

    Didn't the NAACP put together a service like that? Maybe it didn't last, though.

  • ||

    Maybe it's time for somebody to go on the offensive and challenge the implicit assumptions in these prosecutions.
    First, 'wiretapping' is intended to stop people SECRETLY recording a conversation--it's not about PERMISSION, it's about KNOWLEDGE. So the actual laws need to be challenged (somehow). Wiretapping is bad because it's secretly recording conversations that are intended to be private.
    On the other hand, we need to challenge the preposterous idea that interactions between police and citizens are supposed to be private. Secret arrests are what the Nazis and the Communists engaged in. Do Massachusetts, Illinois really want to be known as places where arrests (and perhaps later, trials) are conducted in secret? Isn't that part of what the Declaration of Independence was all about?
    Most of this is, admittedly pipe dreams, but folks like the ACLU need to be beating on the secrecy drum more than on the police brutality one (as tempting as that may be).

  • ||

    need to be beating on the secrecy drum more than on the police brutality one

    Well, with the secrecy being a cause of the brutality, yeah, that makes sense.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    First, 'wiretapping' is intended to stop people SECRETLY recording a conversation--it's not about PERMISSION, it's about KNOWLEDGE. So the actual laws need to be challenged (somehow).

    The problem you very well might run into is that the way some of the states' laws are written apparently would include the recording of a person without their permission or consent - regardless of whether you're doing it secretly or with their knowledge. The problem would be with the badly written law iself.

    A textualist judge who understands the rule of the judiciary would be forced to conclude, from the plain text of the law, that the legislature meant to forbid the recording of someone without their permission, period. It is not the job of the judiciary to fix laws that do not correctly state the intent of the legislature. Court cases like that, however, often prod the legislature into fixing the law by bringing the bad wording to the attention of legislators.

    I'm not so sure I would want to be that test case.

  • ||

    There is equitable construction. Judges can and should be aware of the legislature's intent in enacting laws and incorporate such knowledge properly.

  • ||

    I think "wiretapping" refers specifically to the interception of signals in a context in which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as with a telephone conversation. This is why they had to make a law (ECPA 1986 et seq) specifically for cell phones. The old IMTS phones were broadcast in FM in the clear; any scanner that covered the band could receive them. I know I used to listen, it could be muchly entertaining. An officer apprehending a suspect in a public place has no such expectation of privacy. If it is legitimate for you to be there to witness the occurrence, you may indeed record it. Why, the police themselves have CCTV installed all over the place!

  • the boil on joe's butt||

    Civil servants deserve more respect than to record them doing their jobs. As a boil on the butt of a civil servant, I know what a thankless job (not counting the higher wages, retirement, and health bennies) they perform.

  • ||

    I agree with you but I also appreciate the citizens right to record the cops in public. Would the recording tell the whole story? History (i.e. Rodney King) has shown that's not the case. But that doesn't mean that citizens should be barred from recording. Cops have one of the hardest jobs in the world. But they CHOOSE that profession, which means they CHOOSE to work in an environment such as that.

  • NoVAHockey||

    I've never used this, but it seems to be another option.

    http://www.eye.fi/how-it-works/features/online-sharing

  • ||

    Or (at the risk of seeming spammy):

    www.looxie.com

    I know nothing about this, a friend just posted a note about it.

  • ||

    Duh, missed the link in the article. Should've carefully re-RTFA before commenting.

  • soupwell||

    Great article, Radley. I have been intending to investigate this very topic for my Android. Downloaded and installed both apps already. I'm curious to see how they do at archiving when they are just shut off, without following any sort of save dialog.

    Both apps have the option to send video to other Social Networking sites, this may reduce the danger of being deleted by "rouge" cops.

    I would love to see an app built just for quickly securing recorded video.

  • sarcasmic||

    And as examples of police reports contradicted by video become increasingly common, a couple of things are likely to happen: Prosecutors and courts will be less inclined to uncritically accept police testimony, even in cases where there is no video, and bad cops will be deterred by the knowledge that their misconduct is apt to be recorded.

    More likely they will pass laws making it difficult to use such evidence in court.

    It is more important to maintain faith in the system than to have a system worthy of faith.

  • Jason||

    I am a cop and I hate the reactions by other officers to being recorded. By most state laws we are required to record our actions on every stop, call, etc on an in car camera. If someone else wants to record me I could care less. Unfortunately most officers view the world as Us v Them, instead of recognizing that people have rights and we are simply employed to keep one person from interfering with the free lives of others. I get into this argument often with other officers. I hate how much these debate turn into nothing more then "f the police" but if we don't recognize the problems in out ranks and fix them then we can't expect anything different. (that was a bit of a rant and i don't feel like proof reading so i assume this will be incoherant)

  • ||

    I see video every day on TV, taken from patrol cars' dashboard cameras, that cast police officers in both a good and a bad light, depending upon the individual circumstances. As noted above, it's often in the cops' best interests to record those activities. Of course, the dog that never barks doesn't make the news or this blog, nor do the thousands of routine encounters that take place every day without incident.

  • Jason||

    Crap, yet another Jason?

  • ||

    Jason, you may want to cut back on those conversations with your fellow officers. They may eventually take you seriously and you could end up with a bullet in your head from an "unidentified suspect that got away."

    Your wife can look forward to a state-funeral, though.

  • ||

    Your conspiracy theory interests me. Do you have a blog or a newsletter?

  • ||

    It was meant in jest, but...

    Touche.

  • Jason||

    now that is funny

  • Cyto||

  • ||

    i have the F*&*k the police attitude your refering to, and it was broght on through all the years of herrassment, beginning in jr high school through present time. now mind you i never did anything bad, i just had long hair and drove hot rods. now i ride a harley and belong to a 3 piece patch MC. what really turned me was seeing how the cops and media only want to show the good side of cops, and try to hide or blur the bad ones.

  • ||

    You are a member of an OMG and can't understand why cops don't like you? Well, here's a news flash... most normal people won't like you. Most kids were harassed by cops. Get over it. The adult instruction manual clearly states you are not to hold on to those anger issues after you turn 25 years old, bro.

    "I ride a harley and belong to a 3 piece patch MC."

    Really? WoW! Why don't you leave the club and strike out on your own? The cops will probably leave you alone. You see, us taxpayers PAY them to come down hard on scumbag bikers.

  • ||

    Note to Big Brother: Little Brother is watching. And he is everywhere.

  • ||

    I see a marketing opportunity for the same businesses that sell radar detectors. CopBusters (TM) wireless camera. Small, undetectable, streams in realtime to a secure offshore server. I bet someone's already working on it.

  • Mango Punch||

    Is Balko former law enforcement or military? He sure looks like a cop.

  • prolefeed||

    He looks more like a really butch gay.

    NTTAWWT.

  • ||

    BALKO IS THE MANLIEST OF MEN. BALKO SLAUGHTER ANIMALS BARE-HANDED TO FEED FAMILY.

    Why he doesn't go to the grocery store like everyone else is beyond me, but who am I to question his motives?

  • ||

    To avoid the screaming children and parents who don't stop them?

  • ||

    I didn't notice any advice in here about the Qik application for smart phones, which allows you to stream video to Youtube and other sites *during* the police encounter. Even if the cop takes your phone and tosses it down a well, all the video up until that point will be safely waiting for you once you've posted bail.

  • Pedant||

    You didn't notice the entire second half of Radley's article?

  • craskolo||

    Balko is incorrect about being able to delete videos from your iPhone!

    Right now Qik allows you to automatically upload videos to YouTube. If you do not have the YouTube app installed on your phone, there is no way to delete these videos from your device without your youtube account password (which is your right not to give to the authorities).

    Also, even without a YouTube account, you cannot delete your Qik videos from your phone anyway. Yes, you can delete the actual video files from your phone, but they are still available from the Qik website. Qik explains that you have to actually login to your Qik account via a browser (not the app itself) in order to actually delete the video from the internet.

    So even if the cops delete your videos from your phone, they will still be available to the world on the Qik website. Again, you would have to give the cops your Qik account password (and they would have to use a browser, not the app) for them to actually be able to delete the video from the internet. For more on this see:
    http://getsatisfaction.com/qik.....the_iphone

  • ||

    With both Qik and UStream, you can delete your uploaded videos from your phone,

    Couldn't this be avoided by having to enter a PIN to get access to your phone, which seems to be a pretty standard feature, these days?

  • craskolo||

    Lucky, Balko is wrong about that. You can automatically upload videos to various video services, such as youtube, and unless the cops have the passwords to all of these, there is nothing they can do to erase them.

  • ||

    I seem to remember a SF story once that included a story thread of people who wore video glasses all the time which recorded everything they saw and transmitted the images to their own computers in their own homes. These images were recorded to help them deal with criminals, both official and non-official. I think this story dates to the 50s, and it is interesting to see that it is really coming true.

    Now I am waiting for the arrival of the "wireheads" who have embedded connections into the pleasure centers in their brains, and a little button to push...

  • ||

    I seem to remember a SF story once that included a story thread of people who wore video glasses all the time which recorded everything they saw and transmitted the images to their own computers in their own homes. These images were recorded to help them deal with criminals, both official and non-official. I think this story dates to the 50s, and it is interesting to see that it is really coming true.

    Now I am waiting for the arrival of the "wireheads" who have embedded connections into the pleasure centers in their brains, and a little button to push...

  • Comerialized Electronics||

    Wii Droud

    'nough said.

  • ||

    My only concern is that if the cops knew they were being video taped all the time, they might approach every situation safe and "by the book", which could be bad news for potential victims.

    The LAPD is already hogtied by certain regulations (especially after the Macarthur park fiasco). They have to call special outside units to dismantle pipes or other equipments that link protesters together.

    If you can record the police on any given situations (even if you maintain a safe distance), then can you record other functions of government as long as you don't break any laws?

  • quidfecisti||

    "Are you allowed to do something if it's not illegal?" Is this a serious question?

  • ||

    "Are you allowed to do something if it's not illegal?"

    Huh? I didn't say that.

    Your behavior will change if you know you're being video taped. Sometimes police have to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment to protect the public. If an officer sees half a dozen people recording him 100 feet away (or whatever's acceptable distance), he may be encouraged to act more in the interest of his own job and avoiding lawsuits than serving the public.

    That's really my only concern. If you video tape a cop beating up on pregnant woman for no reason, more power to you.

  • ||

    So many sites, including corporate ones (for the time being) are FILLED with articles and comments like this story.

    It's rather obvious that the fix is in. The wars are endless, the banksters are bailed out, corporations are now people, money is now speech; All the global masters need are a force full of fascist goons that do not care about killing their own countrymen.

    As previously noted, there is no conspiracy, they KNOW what they are doing. Just like cars being harder to fix, it is all sold to you as if it benefits you.

    Everything is simply being bled away from us piece by piece, but it's more like slice by slice now.

    If you haven't noticed by now then you are surely lost.

  • JJ||

    Outlawing public taping of the po-po is, of course, unconstitutional. But whether the sheeple will take notice and fight it, or just sleep through it, remains to be seen.

    Hopefully, this now growing technology may begin to force the issue to the public surface.

    Orwell and Rush 2112 were both right. Orwell a little too quick on the draw, Rush a little too late, but both were accurate at seeing it coming.

  • ||

    Speaking for myself, as a 25+ year patrol officer, I am disapointed you did not more directly address my concern with anyone recording my offical actions. Please use tech advanced enough so you can get what you want from a minimum of 100 feet away. Potential attackers have to be watched, dividing my attention and changing my tactics dealing with the case at hand. If you are far enough away so I cannot be easily shot, stabbed or otherwise attacked,feel free to record all you want. I likely have less (if anything)to hide than the subject I am addressing. I might even ask for a copy for evidence or a viewing for instant replay.

  • Ayn R. Key||

    You forgot to mention camera pens and camera sunglasses, both available on Amazon. Somewhat pricey compared to what you listed, but both good. The pen is also functional as a pen.

  • ||

    I've gotten a bunch of this kind of thing on ebay. I have one of the "pack of gum" cameras, pen camera, wireless pen, a small camera with a phillips head screw for a lens, wireless recorder, wireless camera receiver, etc. I have a storage box marked "James Bond Stuff" that would blow Q's mind.

  • Hacha Cha||

    I keep a cheap mp3 player that can record audio in my pocket. I can easily and covertly record any interactions with the police using this. You can find many different kinds of cheap mp3 players that have a mic and can record audio, some are as cheap as $10.

  • ||

    This little device was just posted on Jalopnik. Unlikely a cop would suspect your keys.
    http://jalopnik.com/5645032/20.....os-crazier

  • 1389AD||

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are NOT what they claim to be, and should NOT be trusted to protect our rights. In addition, HRW is funded by George Soros.

    http://1389blog.com/category/a.....rnational/

    http://1389blog.com/category/human-rights-watch/

    I suggest that Reason Magazine set up a website/service for the purpose of uploading police abuse videos. Traffic to your website would skyrocket!

  • Barry Soetoro||

    Get a few of these - http://www.themicrocamera.com/

    http://www.obamadeception.info

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  • crasko||

    Balko is incorrect about being able to delete videos from your iPhone. Right now Qik allows you to automatically upload videos to YouTube. If you do not have the YouTube app installed on your phone, there is no way to delete these videos from your device without your youtube account password (which is your right not to give to the authorities).

    Also, even without a YouTube account, you cannot delete your Qik videos from your phone anyway. Yes, you can delete the actual video files from your phone, but they are still available from the Qik website. Qik explains that you have to actually login to your Qik account via a browser (not the app itself) in order to actually delete the video from the internet.

    So even if the cops delete your videos from your phone, they will still be available to the world on the Qik website. Again, you would have to give the cops your Qik account password (and they would have to use a browser, not the app) for them to actually be able to delete the video from the internet. For more on this see:
    http://getsatisfaction.com/qik.....the_iphone

  • jhdtgf||

    they have nothing to hide if theyre not doing anything wrong. right? isnt that the line they used for the public? now they treat cameras like guns.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Qik and UStream, two services available for both the iPhone and Android phones, allow instant online video streaming and archiving.

    Qik is no more.

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