How to Record the Cops

A guide to keeping law enforcement accountable

What’s the best way to record the cops? Here’s a quick run-down of the choices.

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

Kodak also has a pocket video camera for $100, and Amazon.com lists a couple dozen different flash-memory video cameras for under $50. Still too expensive? For $20, a camera sold at the USBGeek website is shorter than a stick of gum and shoots 640×480 video at 30 frames per second. Its memory slot will hold up to 32GB of memory, and it has a two-hour battery life. Meritline.com sells a keychain camera that’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).

If your camera is confiscated by the authorities and you find after it has been returned that your files or videos have been deleted, your best option is to look into recovery software, which in many cases can bring the deleted files back. Don’t use the camera or phone until you’ve tried the software. 

Ideally, you want a camera with wireless capability and access to a network speedy enough for instant online streaming. Technology is helping there too. We are increasingly seeing spy-movie-style cameras like the Bluetooth device from Looxcie, which hangs on your ear and lets you instantly email video. 

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. In fact, it’s now standard in most smart phones. 

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 saved online in seconds. Both services also allow you to send out a mass email message or a notice to Twitter followers when you post a new video from your phone. 

Neither Qik nor UStream markets itself 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, uploaded videos can be deleted from the phone, which means that if your phone is confiscated before you can turn it off (or if you keep your phone unlocked), authorities 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 a far better option would be an upload service that allows videos to be deleted only through a password-protected account accessed from a computer. Another improvement would be the ability to “black out” your phone while it’s taking video, so it isn’t so obvious that you are recording.

UStream and Qik probably aren’t likely to add either function, since both are beneficial only for people who want to make surreptitious recordings. But an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People might consider developing a cell phone app specially designed for recording police. The NAACP’s “All Alert” project encourages people to report incidents of police abuse through a toll-free phone number, text message, 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, an organization that informs 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 such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to develop a similar easy-to-use application, allowing people all over the world to emulate instant documentation of the sort we saw during the 2009 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. Doing so would be a worthwhile project for an organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties. 

Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason.

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.

  • Suki||

    Good morning reason! In other news, that lie that WikiLeaks spilled the beans on Climategate is a lie.

  • ||

    Hey Balko, you are not telling the truth about what Gov Haley Barbour said in the WS interview. Barbour never said “Mississippi blacks didn’t have it so bad in the 1960s”. That is a lie and you should disqualify yourself from reporting on anything. That kind of dishonesty casts doubt on all your reports.

  • Federal Dog||

    If you are in Massachusetts, make sure that you are extremely conspicuous about recording.

    Recording is only a felony here if it is done secretly. So hold the camera up high and openly to avoid any allegation of illegal wiretapping.

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    "Secretly" being open to interpretation by government agents aka judges. The same people who interpret the Commerce Clause as allowing Congress unlimited power. Good luck with that.

  • Yup||

    Make sure you record audio of you saying "I am recording video of you." several times. If the person says, "Put that camera down" they know you are recording.

  • ||

    If they come over and hit you with a nightstick, you can be POSITIVE they know you are recording...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "For quality control purposes this interaction may be recorded."

  • Matrix||

    I have put Ustream on my iphone and have the phone locked to require a password to access it.

  • Jerry||

    Upload your video to a server outside the United States!

  • Yeah, Baby!||

    Better yet, freak out! Yeah!

  • Brian D||

    In NH, it is only illegal to record the audio of someone without their permission (otherwise in-store surveillance cameras would be illegal), so disabling the mic in your camera or finding or modifying one so it can be turned off and on is the way to go.

  • Jen||

    With both Qik and UStream, uploaded videos can be deleted from the phone, which means that if your phone is confiscated before you can turn it off (or if you keep your phone unlocked), authorities can get into your account and erase your evidence.

    I think you're giving police entirely too much credit. Most of the cops I know aren't tech savvy or clever enough to do that.

  • ||

    Most police departments have some sort of technical assistance division. Said cop need merely be smart enough to ask one of them to unlock the phone and delete the video.

  • Meh||

    They're not going to be able to unlock the phone without your cooperation.

    And the deletion of the video will not only leave a trail, but may not actually delete the video depending on how the service handles the videos and deletion.

  • ||

    "I'm a loser baby, that's why I kill dogs."

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  • Tim||

    How's the weather in in Kiev?

  • Fiscal Meth||

    He live in Kiev? How did you make those conclusion?

  • Yoo Ess of A||

    hmm, but how much can you record with my boot in your back?

  • Tim||

    All over America, fusion centers are examining this thread and tracing posters.

  • Wind Rider||

    With the occaisional hoo haa about cops complaining that people make up stuff about their conduct, one would think that most honest cops would welcome documentation of their random interactions with the public, for their own protection. Guess it isn't that big a deal for them if they can count on he said/she said situations to overwhelmingly break in their favor - still, since that was likely one of the factors for adding dashboard cams to cruisers, it pops a lot of red flags when they get adamant and bitchy about it. If they're actually proud of the job they're doing, it would seem rational they'd want everyone to see it. They certainly don;t seem to have a problem releasing videos that show them in a positive light to the low budget 'police car chases and crashes' shows on cable.

  • robc||

    First you have to find an honest cop.

  • Yeah, Baby!||

    one would think that most honest cops would welcome documentation of their random interactions with the public

    Welcome or tolerate? What makes you think that they don't? Because it hasn't been reported here?

    First you have to find an honest cop.

    Ha ha! Because there aren't any, right?

  • Freddie||

    On the night of the Rodney King beating, LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon, who was in charge at the scene, was informed that someone had made a videotape of what happened.

    His response? "Great. We can use it as a training video."

    He had no idea that following LAPD policy to the letter would land him in court as a criminal.

  • zac||

    neither did Hitler's SS men know that they'd be treated as war criminals

  • Meh||

    They certainly don;t seem to have a problem releasing videos that show them in a positive light to the low budget 'police car chases and crashes' shows on cable.

    You should watch one of those shows with a cop. You'll have a different opinion about how 'positive' those shows make the police look.

    About the only real benefit to cops is that the guys they are chasing are almost always guilty and even if they're not, they look guilty and you never find out one way or the other.

    But in terms of actually knowing what the hell they are doing, in weighing decisions about whether a chase is worth it, in their ability to even fucking drive, those shows make most of the cops look like fucking idiots.

  • ||

    I was a cop for 25 years and was recorded - by the media - numerous times. So what. If I am doing nothing morally wrong, illegal, unethical or whatever I have nothing to be afraid of. Coincidently the same excuse many law enforcement organizations use countless times. So video away and let the chips fall where they may. Law enforcement is now so underpaid in many places that standards have deteriorated to the point that people with misdemeanor convictions and felony arrests NOT convicted of are not disqualifying for appointment. Training has gone down the tubes for years due to reduced budgets. You canot be sure that the cop you are dealing with is in any way qualified to do the job constitutionally.

  • ||

    There are quite a few shops here in Dallas where you can buy tiny cmaeras. I think some of these shops get their stuff from the same companies that sell to the FBI and CIA.

  • ||

    Sorry about misspelling CAMERAS. I need to go to the other computer. The keys on this one stick.

  • Bee Tagger||

    Get thee to the non-porn computer then!

  • steve||

    Since many of these encounters occur in one's car, is there a car version of the looxcie idea (continuously recording loop, retrieve after an incident; maybe even a couple or more camera angles)?

  • IceTrey||

    Wouldn't a cop deleting video off of QIK not only be destruction of evidence but also illegal hacking?

  • takinglibertyseriously||

    Yes. Good point.

    takinglibertyseriously.net

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Well, it would, but you'll have no evidence but your word that there ever was a recording...

  • Meh||

    Until you subpoena Qik.

    Of course, then they'll probably turn around and charge YOU with destruction of evidence, claiming you deleted it.

  • Hacha Cha||

    You can get inexpensive 1-5gb mp3 players that have a built-in mic and can record audio. The one I use is a 2gb one that I picked up for like $10. I can covertly record audio with it from my pocket. There are also camera pens, they are popular in Iran, they are like $50-75+. Other covert ways of recording audio and video are watches, sun glasses, and even t-shirts with built in a camera and mic! And all of these products can be found for under $100.
    I'm not trying to pimp thinkgeek, but here are some examples of:
    camera/mic t-shirt: http://www.thinkgeek.com/elect.....aphy/e60c/
    sunglasses cam/mic: http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/security/c3eb/

  • Hacha Cha||

    Wanted to add, that the great thing about using an mp3 player, watch, t-shirt, sunglasses, or pen to record the police they are less likely to know they are being filmed.

  • Hacha Cha||

    ^So... less likely they will confiscate your recording device, or if it is confiscated, less likely they'll even know what they have is a recording device. I recommend a piece of software called PhotoRec, to recover deleted files, it is free and open source: http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/PhotoRec

  • takinglibertyseriously||

    This piece is a real public service.

    If enough people routinely record their interactions with the police, it won't be long until they expect to be recorded. At that point, I think there will be a sea change in the interactions between police officers and members of the public.

    The (hopefully) small minority that acts unprofessionally will either shape up or find themselves shipped out. The exposure to lawsuits would be intolerable for a city that keeps documented abusive officers on the payroll.

    takinglibertyseriously.net

  • ||

    This might be semi-OT, but I'm wondering if anyone has recorded bag searches on NYC or Boston subways. They've started doing it in Washington DC now. Seems pretty routine from what I've heard. However, a reporter did describe one man whose bag tested positive for chemicals but contained no explosives. He was detained and questioned for eight minutes. He had to produce ID. I'm concerned about what the authorities are doing with the info they collect when this happens. Is this guy going to end up on a Homeland Security "suspicious persons" list? Will they use the positive chemical test as probable cause to investigate him further? In general, what are the consequences for this guy? Anybody know what they do in Boston or NYC?

  • IceTrey||

    He didn't HAVE to produce id. Know your rights. Even in cases where the police have legitimate reasonable suspicion and legally detain you the most information you have to give them is your name. You only have to do that in states with "stop and identify" laws and only if you don't want to have them charge you with breaking that law. There is NO federal "stop and identify" law. NEVER EVER EVER TALK TO OR GIVE COPS ANY INFOrMATION!

  • ||

    Point taken. But what happens in this particular situation if you DO give them your ID and talk to them? Nobody seems to know...

  • Richard Stands||

    This wiki has some good information on that:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_and_Identify_statutes

    Phrase to remember: "Am I free to go?"

  • ||

    You are far more likely to be secretly recorded by the officer than the other way around. I was a police officer for 33 years and we always had a hidden audio or video device running. The police misconduct you describe is about as rare as being struck by lightning, but suspect misconduct happens all the time.

  • Hacha Cha||

    There are many places in the US where if you are in the wrong area and are suspected of being involved with drugs, they will go ahead and search without your consent, probable cause, or a warrant. Being on record as refusing a search could be very valuable in court in such a situation.

  • ||

    Apparently I didn't work in one of those jurisdictions -- we took probable cause seriously. I would say record all you want, just don't get so close as to interfere with the officer's duties.

  • IceTrey||

    "The police misconduct you describe is about as rare as being struck by lightning,"

    Da Nile just ain't a river in Egypt.

  • Cyto||

    People get struck by lightning all the time. Your government estimates that roughly 600 people per year are injured by lightning. That doesn't include "struck, but not injured", which would factor in to the "rarity factor" above. At any rate, they factor in the various frequencies and come up with a 1/625 chance that you or someone close to you will be injured by lightning in your lifetime. So not all that rare after all. And probably at least in the correct order of magnitude for severe police misconduct. (minor police misconduct is much closer to 1:1 - IMHO)

  • ||

    ""I was a police officer for 33 years and we always had a hidden audio or video device running. ""

    Audio? Breaking wiretap laws?

  • ||

    Nope. All quite legal and admissible in court.

  • ||

    Bullshit.

  • ||

    If you insist. I was thinking, however, of surveillance not violating the 4th Amendment or requiring a warrant per US v Karo, Florida v Riley and a host of similar case law decisions.

  • Dr. Q||

  • ||

    Nuclear war is rare, too. Should we have just ignored the possibility during the Cold War? Influenza epidemics are rare, also. Should we not bother with thinking about flu vaccines and public health measures? Having a heart attack at age 50 is exceedingly rare. Should none of us in middle age think about what we eat, how much we weigh, whether we smoke?

    The important question is not so much how rare the event is, but the magnitude of the consequences. One fatal heart attack in a lifetime can kind of ruin your day. One serious police misconduct situation can destroy mutual confidence between the public and the police for years and across millions of interactions, can make a real tear in the social fabric, so to speak -- can lead to thousands of mistrustful, destructive, and pointlessly costly interactions that don't make the news.

    Go read The Black Swan and educate yourself a little bit. The frequency of extremely bad events is not their most important characteristic, and certainly not how you should rank the importance of preventing them or reducing their impact.

  • ||

    And just when did you retire, bluefloo? I was a cop for 25 years ending in 1994 and I never heard of a cop recording anyone - mainly because such devices simply did not exist. I think you're a phony.

  • ||

    Earlier this year. You're correct up to a point. We used to use mini cassettes with a tie clip mike. When digital video became available, the pen cameras were the thing. All invaluable tools to prevent bogus personnel complaints.

  • ||

    And in a similar vein, Oakland PD in Calif. just purchased personal clip-on digital video cameras for each of it's officers -- sort of a personal dash cam.

  • ||

    Wouldn't a cop deleting video off of QIK not only be destruction of evidence but also illegal hacking?

    Not if a cop does it, of course.

    The (hopefully) small minority that acts unprofessionally will either shape up or find themselves shipped out. The exposure to lawsuits would be intolerable for a city that keeps documented abusive officers on the payroll.

    A fella can dream.

  • Jen||

    In unrelated news, Chris Christie commuted Brian Aitken's sentence!

    http://www.nj.com/news/index.s....._rele.html

  • ||

    Seattle cop shoots and kills a man crossing the street

    From the link:

    Then, a faint woman's voice can be heard saying, "He didn't do anything."

    Officer Birk can be heard saying "Ma'am, he had a knife and he wouldn't drop it."
    The radio dispatcher asks for a status report.
    Officer Birk answers, "Under control. Subject is down."

  • ||

    The rate of misconduct doesn't matter. At all. The power imbalance in favor of a cop has in such situations means that someone elses word is worthless. The only way they would be believed is with video or another witness. Executing innocents is "rare". So should we then not worry about judicial misconduct or abolish mistrials?

  • ||

    Obviously you have never followed news in NYC. Cops there are routinely found to be lying by courts/judges in a few boroughs.

  • Corky Boyd||

    Simply a fantastic article.

    Next we must defang police in states that use wiretap statutes to prosecute those who post criminal behavior by police officers. These laws were intended to protect privacy where there is reasonable expectation of privacy. Videotaping a half dozen cops whupping a suspect on public property should not qualify.

  • ||

    The problem with your logic is that in most cases, people who record these cases do not see the criminal conduct that leads up to the arrest. The law specifically states "reasonable force used to effect arrest." That is open ended - the person who continues to violently resist will result in an escalation of force by the police - and this has been found consistently by higher courts to be completely legal.

  • ||

    It seems that the people who champion citizens recording police activities are pretty much the same people who decry police recording traffic violators. Where's the logic there? Why not also take away cops' radios and radar guns?

  • Hugh Akston||

    The logic is that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution specifically prohibits agents of the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. If the cops don't have a warrant, they have no reason to be recording you.

    As for taking away their radar guns, I will be the first person to sign on to that decision.

  • ||

    1. "To protect and serve" is a perfect job description for employees of a free-range chicken ranch and restaurant

    2. There are millions of armed government employees roaming the highways and byways in cars emblazoned with that job description

    3. Do you like being a free-range chicken?

  • AblueSilkworm||

    Am I the only person who fears for Balko's safety?

  • Zoe Brain||

    I suggest for police officers that they record everything, and give warnings that they are doing so. Anything before the warning will generally not be admissible, but could be.

    Private citizens should wear a badge saying "WARNING By interacting with me you give permission for the interaction to be recorded"

    That *may* get you around wiretap laws.

    I'm all in favour of both police and citizens having a silent witness available.

  • insurance||

    You are far more likely to be secretly recorded by the officer than the other way around. I was a police officer for 33 years and we always had a hidden audio or video device running. The police misconduct you describe is about as rare as being struck by lightning, but suspect misconduct happens all the time.

  • FreeLinkDirectory||

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    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.
    I am hoping the same best work from you in the future.
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  • ||

    One point: The police cannot "confiscate" your camera UNLESS they arrest you. Don't give it up and don't give them the memory card.

  • Hillary||

    It sounds like a great idea, but you would have to be really on top of your game to set everything up and have it record what you want it to when the time comes, not to mention you would be assuming an encounter with the police is in your near future, and who thinks they are going to get caught? However, not every police officer writes a truthful report and contradicting video would be great to have if you needed it.

  • august||

    Great article! These tips and recording the police will be more important as the police state escalates.

    You didn't mention a GREAT way to record the police with this GPS dashcam!
    www.gpsskytracker.com

  • august||

    Great article! These tips and recording the police will be more important as the police state escalates.

    You didn't mention a GREAT way to record the police with this GPS dashcam!
    www.gpsskytracker.com

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  • ||

    years ag the only way I felt I could document Port St Lucie, FL city officials refusing to provide public records was to videorecord my request and their usual response. very obvious with a bulky VHS camera, I was threatened with arrest, told I could not videtape in city hall (a public building). Within a couple weeks the city had put up doors blocking public access to the city clerks office unless allowed to pass, cameras not permitted. sad to say that was 20 years ago, the officials names have changed but the policy of record denial has only gotten worse

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