Civil Liberties

USA Today Editorial on Recording the Police


Strong editorial from USA Today. Riffing off the Anthony Graber arrest in Maryland, the paper opines:

This is an abuse of prosecutorial authority and a misinterpretation of state law. But it's typical of the attitude of too many prosecutors and police toward people who record their encounters with law enforcement and are usually completely within their rights to do so.

Websites that monitor these cases have posted stories from around the country of police ordering people to stop videotaping or photographing them, sometimes violently. Most of the time, the police apparently either don't understand the law or are deliberately misstating it to bully people into putting away their cameras or cellphones…

The opposing editorial from the International Union of Police Organizations is actually pretty tepid. It doesn't come out in favor of or in opposition to these arrest, but warns that citizen videos can be misleading or falsified. Of course, that's true of police dash cam and surveillance videos too. Or for that matter, police reports. I also interviewed a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police last week. That organization takes a harder line against citizen videos.

Meanwhile, here's another account of a citizen who was harassed for photographing cops, this time in Washington, D.C.

So, there I was cigar in hand with camera in tote. I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Georgetown section of the District of Columbia. After a fun and fulfilled day of taking pictures in DC, I was heading home and observed a traffic stop. I put out my cigar and started to take pictures from across the street.

I was to take a few shots and move on, but that's not what happened, far from that. I was asked for "security reasons" why I was taking pictures. I told the officer that I just was getting pictures of the traffic stop for a collection, he asked for ID and in return I asked "am I being detained or am I free to leave" after dancing around the question, he finally stated that I was free to go. As he walked away another officer stated that I was being detained and that I needed to provide identification. She told me to put me camera away and stop recoding.

I was told by 4 officers  that it is "illegal" to take pictures of people without prior consent on a public street, and unlawful to take pictures of the police with authorization from the DCPD PIO. That of course is false, in public people do not have an expectation of privacy.  I was also told that I could not "record people, you need permission first" and one officer was quick to say "you don't have mine". Whats funny is the officer that informed me that I could not record people, pulled out her camera phone and started to audio and video recorded me.

D.C. is a one-party consent jurisdiction. So there was no reasonable explanation for the cops to tell this guy he couldn't photograph or record them. By the time it was over, four cruisers and ten cops were on the scene . . . because a guy took some photos of a traffic stop. Frankly, it's not enough that he merely wasn't arrested. They tried to intimidate him into giving up his rights. I've written this before, but if citizens can't claim ignorance when they're cited for breaking the law, cops can't be be allowed to get away with trying to enforce laws that don't exist. It should be easy enough to identify these particular officers from the photographs. If the photographer's account is accurate, they ought to be disciplined.