Watch the Watchmen

It shouldn't be a crime to record the cops.


I believe in the right to privacy.

Yet I can think of someone who deserves very little privacy—a policeman making an arrest. Unfortunately, in some states it's a crime to make a video of a policeman doing just that. People recording police have been threatened, detained, or arrested. Some were jailed overnight.

That's wrong. Police work for the public, they're paid with tax money, and most importantly, they have tremendous power. They've got the legal right to pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us. The potential for abuse is great. So it's a good thing that modern video cameras are now so commonplace. Any abuse of police power in a public place is likely to be recorded. Why should that be a crime in some states?

I asked Radley Balko, an editor at Reason magazine who keeps an eye on issues like this: What's happened to the people who were arrested for videotaping cops at work?

"In most of these cases, the people aren't actually prosecuted," Balko said. "The charges tend to get dropped before these cases get to trial—I think because the people prosecuting these cases and the people who make the laws don't want the laws to actually get challenged. But it's a night in jail."

On what charge?

"In states that have these two-party consent laws, they rely on the old wiretapping laws. The claim is that police officers have a right to privacy while they're on the job in public exercising some pretty powerful responsibilities that we give them. I think that claim is ridiculous."

He says some authorities now claim that people who record the police while being arrested are "interfering with arrest or … refusing to obey a lawful order, if they tell you to turn the camera off and you don't."

How does it interfere with the arrest?

"It's a ridiculous argument. But here's the thing: You may not go to jail for these charges. But they're going to take your camera, going to arrest you, you're going to be handcuffed, put in the back of a squad car. And nothing is going to happen to the police officers who illegally arrest you—usually."

Occasionally a cop caught abusing his power is arrested or fired. But that's rare.

In Maryland, motorcyclist Tony Graber got in trouble for recording a cop who pulled him over for speeding. Graber didn't know it was cop. He was just a guy in plainclothes with a gun. The cop eventually identified himself.

"Graber didn't get arrested until he posted that video on YouTube," Balko explained. "Once he posted it … the state police raided his home—came into his home early in the morning, guns drawn—confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, held him and his parents at gunpoint, arrested him. He spent several nights in jail. He had felony charges hanging over his head until the case finally got to court."

Fortunately, a state judge threw out the charges and wrote a strong opinion:

"Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation."

He ended by asking, "Who watches the watchmen?"—a question Plato raised in The Republic. Good for the judge. But Balko points out that no one punished the authorities who abused their power.

"The prosecutor who charged him, the cops who raided him and arrested him—they were all wrong about the law and did real harm to him, and none of them are going to suffer any consequences."

Most police officers told us that they're fine with cameras, and some were happy they were recorded when they were vindicated of misconduct charges thanks to a video made by a bystander. The cops who object tend to be problem cops.

That little phone with a camera is a good thing. Now it's even a weapon against tyranny.

But, Balko added, only if the laws "ensure that we can continue to use it that way."

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com.


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  1. This show is going to interfere with arrests all over the place.

  2. no mention of PINAC? stossel fail.

  3. I don’t have time to RTFA, and I am in NO WAY defending the cops, but don’t the no-recording laws in some states have nothing to do with cops? They’re generic and apply to everyone, but the cops are using that to fuck people who record them?

    1. Yes, but there are a couple of cases — Illini, we’re looking in your direction — where they specifically target the police or government officials with protection. So even if there is no expectation of privacy, you are wiretapping because they are the cops.

      You know… something, something, the children.

      But then, you knew that…

      1. Not-so-proud Illini here. I was catching up with an old college buddy of mine a few months ago. He’s a cop for a podunk town in the very southern part of the state, and he was actually bragging to me about people not being able to record him. Oh, and he was also laughing that he could carry a concealed weapon and I can’t. Needless to say, we haven’t spoken since.

        1. I ran into a guy I took some classes with in college who had become a cop, and he could only lament on his not getting a chance to shoot anyone yet.

          Needless to say I’ve felt very uncomfortable around cops since.

        2. Was he being a dick on purpose because he knew your views on that stuff or was he just making talk. I ask because I can’t tell which is scarier. Cops rubbing their power in your face because you’re offended by it or cops thinking that it is the kind of thing that the average person would accept as inoffensive small talk.

          I’ve noticed a scary trend in LA where conventional small talk like “nice day today don’t you think?” is being replaced with things like “isn’t it great that they’re going to ban plastic bags?”. These are not friends but total strangers trying to make pleasant, uncontraversial conversation.

          1. FM – I’m not sure if your comment was directed at me but I’ll respond anyway.

            I think he was just making small talk. As if it is taken for granted that the reason to join the police force is to get paid to hurt people. Like one day I was chatting with a toll taker on the highway about the trooper in a pickup pulling over big trucks for inspection. The toll taker said of the trooper that he takes great joy in ruining someone’s day.

            I am becoming increasingly convinced that police departments are a haven for sociopaths.

            1. * On reread my comment was unclear.

              The toll taker told me that the trooper routinely bragged to him about ruining the day of these truckers, and took great joy in his occupation.

            2. “I am becoming increasingly convinced that police departments are a haven for sociopaths.”

              As am I. A local cop brought his car in to the dealership I was working at several years ago. He was making small talk with me by proudly telling me how many people he’d shot in Vietnam and how he was going to take a job in Iraq training their security forces.

              1. You should have sabotaged the car with something that smells like shit. Or payed the porter to do it.

                1. There’s this stuff that is used to train Search & Rescue dogs to find human bodies. It’s called Cadaverine, and to a human, it’s odorless and colorless. At least on a conscious level. But humans can detect it subliminally, and it tends to cause random panic attacks for no apparent reason. Spraying some into the air vents of a car will make the car undrivable under any kind of stressful conditions.

            3. “I am becoming increasingly convinced that police departments are a haven for sociopaths.”

              Agreed. It’s getting worse everywhere. I have heard psych profiles of law enforcement and criminals are quite similar. Scary enough.

          2. No, he didn’t know my views. We last spoke nearly a decade ago when I was an ignorant, right-wing, nationalist. He seems to be a “nice guy”, but to say he’s an idiot would be a terrible understatement.

          3. Everything ideas sooooo dvary these days

        3. Where in the south, Arcaster? I, and my whole family, are from there. Hell, I may know the guy you’re talking about; we’re all related.

          1. I’m from Carmi, but I don’t recall exactly where he’s working. I do know that it’s south of Harrisburg if that helps.

            1. No shit? I was born in Harrisburg, and my uncle is the Chief of Police of that dump! Well, small world.

            2. *though most of my family is in Eldorado.

              1. Small world indeed. My kids live in Eldorado with my ex and my husband-in-law.

                1. Jesus, I bet we’re either related distantly, or at least our families know eachother. Creepy.

                2. I though one’s ex’s spouse was (in your case) a step-husband.

                  I’m lousy with (the technicalities of) relationships, but my step-husband and I get along just great. Shared misery?

      2. So now, people from IllinoiS are calling themselves “Illini”? That’s almost as annoying as “Hoosier”. And fuck U of I.

    2. Generally yes, but in many cases, the anti-wiretapping laws make it illegal to record someone without his or her consent in circumstances in which the person has an expectation of privacy. The laws clearly were meant to protect private phone calls from being secretly recorded.

      These cops are claiming they have some bizarre and inexplicable reasonable expectation of privacy in making an arrest on the side of a public highway.

      1. If there is an expectation of privacy on the roadside, and the wiretapping laws in your state require a cop have a warrant to be exempt from wiretap laws, you could make a citizen’s arrest for them having a dash cam.

    3. Nobody is likely to accuse you of defending cops Epi.

      It seems to me that those wire tapping laws are bad laws in general. Even in a privacy dispute between two citizens in a public place, the one with a camera is supposed to know in advance what every judge considers “reasonable expectation of privacy” and obey the most restrictive imagined ruling before pressing record on the camera. Non-objective laws like this are worse than strict laws. They’re just way worse when cops can use them to scare citizens out of making them accountable.

  4. 99% of cops give the rest a bad rap.

    1. +1000000

    2. I’m gonna use that, and not give you credit.

      1. I’m not gonna do anything about it, so take that!

    3. “”99% of cops give the rest a bad rap.””

      And that 99% don’t care enough to do something about it.

  5. In this story: No new developments, just a different guy writing about it.

    1. Same guy writing about it (Balko). Different guy writing a summary of what the writer guy told him about what he wrote about it.

      Sorry John, but you really should add a little of your own research if you are going to post an article here. Or at least wait until Balko is gone so it is an outside expert instead of an editor that you are interviewing.

      1. Maybe they are just desperate for filler articles on H&R.

        1. If that were the case we’d see them reposting the same stories for several days….

      2. Maybe some of us actually enjoy having these ideas brought up on a relatively mainstream show. Stossel’s articles usually run to little more than advertisements for his next show, but I’m happy enough that the show exists so that someone other than card-carrying libertarians can hear these ideas, that I can put up with a little advertisement.

        1. Good point. I agree.

    2. In this post: nothing to say, just another guy whining about something stupid.

      1. I think you need to jeep your diction.

        1. You know, not all of us are familiar with your redneck backwoods rapist hick parlance*, and for us, “jeep” merely means a type of offroad vehicle.

          * SQUEAL LIKE A PIG, BOY

          1. Fuck off, cop-sucker. I saw what you said upthread.

            1. Look, it’s just a few good apples that ruin it for the dirty cops, OK?

            2. cop-sucker

              I think that is the worst epithet you could call someone.

  6. Don’t some of these “wiretapping” laws get their start to discourage people from covertly recording politicians?

  7. try, i say, try to video sheriff justice & the stompin’ starts booy

  8. Question: Who watches the watchman?

    Answer: Apparently no one lawfully.

    That is, for lack of a better term ghey. I guess once you don a badge you magically become above reproach. This is that type of stuff that confounds me.

    1. “po-po infallibility”

  9. Question: Who watches the watchman?

    I watched that. I’d give it 6 out of 10 – but I’m not a big Snyder fan anyway.

    1. quis custodiet ipsos custodes

      It would appear Plato’s noble lie hasn’t quite worked out like planned.

    2. Watchmen is one of the few movies for which I reserve a 0 star rating. Absolutely horrendous.

  10. Actually in the states were they try to use the wiretapping laws to harass videographers it’s the AUDIO that they say is illegal. Capturing video is perfectly legal but if you catch one word of what someone says you’re breaking the law.

  11. Make no doubt about it, the US has indeed become a Police State in every sense of the word. Wow.


  12. John Stossel, the “who watches the watchmen” quote is from “Satires” by Juvenal, not from Plato in “The Republic”.

    1. “Qui Custodiet Ipses Custodiens”

      Who cleans up after the janitors? What?

  13. This issue could be a great national project for the Libertarian Party – if they had any interest in doing something constructive.

    1. We don’t!

    2. Maybe we should come up some “other libertarians” sort of party. A mouthful-name party I’ve thrown around is the Liberal Capitalist-Progressive Party for Peace, Production, and Prosperity. I think Liberal Capitalist or just Capitalist might work, but most people think capitalism = scary evil person.


  14. “Police work for the public, they’re paid with tax money, and most importantly, they have tremendous power. ”

    Using your logic, ANY public sector employee should lose his right to privacy: teachers, professors at state institutions, fireman, election commission workers, etc etc etc.

    Hey, I thought libertarians were against slippery slopes. Well, this one is particulary slippery.

    1. To be fair, I think the issue is more that, most of the other professions you named don’t get to put you in jail based on their own on-the-spot decision, or pull a gun on you, or threaten to do these things if you don’t act properly deferential towards them. Their power is the problem, as much as the tax issue.

      1. Agreed. There’s a big difference between a bureaucrat and someone that is authorized to use force. Granted, both of them can make you miserable, but the one carrying the gun can make you dead. He or she should definitely face more scrutiny.

    2. You then conveniently omit the next two sentences:

      “They’ve got the legal right to pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us. The potential for abuse is great.”

      I wasn’t aware that “teachers, professors at state institutions, fireman, election commission workers, etc etc etc” can “pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us”.

      Talk about taking something out of context in order to distort the argument.

    3. You then conveniently omit the next two sentences:

      “They’ve got the legal right to pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us. The potential for abuse is great.”

      I wasn’t aware that “teachers, professors at state institutions, fireman, election commission workers, etc etc etc” can “pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us”.

      Talk about taking something out of context in order to distort the argument.

    4. None of those workers have a right to privacy in relation to the public duties they perform. Privacy relates to one’s private life; hence the name.

    5. Are you saying that we shouldn’t be allowed to tape these either? we’re not talking about in their home, or off-duty doing grocery shopping, cop making an arrest = ok to tape, teacher in classroom with students = okay to tape, librarian shelving books = okay to tape… how is that wrong or unreasonable when we are paying them and they are in public?

      1. Teacher in a classroom – what right do you have to be there if you’re not a student or working for the school.

        Librarian – There are specific rules in libraries so that patrons may use them.

        Do you want me to keep going?

        1. “”Teacher in a classroom – what right do you have to be there if you’re not a student or working for the school.””

          It’s usually a student recording them.

          “”Librarian – There are specific rules in libraries so that patrons may use them.””

          I use a very quite video recorder.


          1. Next? Only in your limited use of logic.

            Student? So that student doesn’t have rules to abide by while at school?

            Library? Same thing, you mentioned quiet, but people just wandering around within a building not actually patronizing it can be asked to leave.

            Any example comes down to property rights.

            1. The school rules that I’ve encountered usually refer to electronic devices, not cameras. A mechanical camera is still good.

              Plus, we’re talking about right and wrong, not legal and illegal.

              The state shouldn’t own property for uses other than protecting us from violent crime and foreign invasion, and the courts. And, if they’re mandating kids going into the school (at gunpoint, if necessary), then the kids have a right to record their experiences inside as protection against abuses.

            2. “Library? Same thing, you mentioned quiet, but people just wandering around within a building not actually patronizing it can be asked to leave.”

              Tell that to the bums who populate the library when they can’t be in the homeless shelter during the day. And as a public place, people can patronize the library however they want.

              Any student in a public school has a first amendment right to record in a non disruptive way. Although there are many schools that would probably violate that right.

            3. Parents also have a right to monitor their child’s public education.

    6. “ANY public sector employee should lose his right to privacy: teachers, professors at state institutions, fireman, election commission workers, etc etc etc.”

      Amen. No one has a right to privacy in a public place or in the presence of people who have made no agreement to keep anything private.

    7. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that public employees should lose their right to privacy. But when you work in the public sector, accountability related specifically to your job function should be subject to the public forum. Also, anyone, regardless of who they work for, has no expectation of privacy on a public street. That is why it is legal for them to snap your picture for doing 11 mph over the limit, or all of the other public cams that exist. Private citizens should have the same rights as public employees to record in public space. If you wish to stay private, stay in locations where you have an expectation of privacy (namely, your property)

  15. prev comment directed at

    bonncaruso|4.21.11 @ 2:55PM

  16. So we know there is a serious problem here. Is anybody trying to fix the problem? Is anybody advocating reform of our broken justice system? When you can be arrested, jailed and prosecuted without cause and those responsible are not held accountable, we have a seriously flawed justice system and arguably a police state. Even if you aren’t convicted, you have suffered major physical and psychological abuse as well as unlawful imprisonment. At the same time, appropriate oversight of the police is effectively blocked – leading to even more abuse of citizens.

    Why isn’t there some elected representative taking at a serious look at this problem and proposing a solution – both for the issue of prosecutorial and police misconduct and the issue of police videotaping? Prosecutorial abuse is not new and yet no remedy has ever been proposed. At the very least, the prosecutors and police involved in such abuse are committing major felonies deserving of serious jail time.

    1. Well, First I think we would need to stop electing tough on crime politicians. We have empowered the war on crime, war on drugs, war on family pets, war on the mistaken address, by giving people who think getting the bad guy at all costs is a good thing the ability to make law.

      1. Watch yourself there; I attended a TP rally last year at the behest of our county LP to trawl for potential recruits (sadly yes, I haven’t given up the dream of a libertarian political party), and ran into a lot of those types.

        Full disclosure: this is Texas, and a very traditional GOP county in Texas, so it may not be reflective of the large and disperate group of people who make up the Tea Party. But when really pressed, their horror of gov’t spending tended to be outweighed by their horror of young people smoking “the dope”. I got the sense that the only taxes they didn’t mind paying were for defense and more prisons.

        1. The Tea Party I went to last year had both “Jesus Loves You” types and an Objectivist table. It’s a really diverse movement, with only an outline of a platform at best.

          1. And therein lies the problem. True libertarian views get conflated with more right-wing bullshit and give the l-word a bad name. No self-respecting libertarian should be in any way associated with this bunch of rednecks.

  17. If we can put City Council mtgs on TV, why not cops? Even a nearly live feed (15 min delay)

    1. Good idea. In Libertopia, we should do this.

  18. This law needs to be revoked. They have never shown it to interfere with an arrest, simply as a way to catch corrupt cops.


    1. Of course it interferes with an arrest. The cop who is being recorded, and knows he just got caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, has to stop harrassing one citizen and go shake down the citizen who caught him on tape. He doesn’t want to get caught planting evidence or sexually assaulting a completely innocent person…he’ll lose his job, and his pension, and his kids will starve, and you dont’ want his kids to starve do you? I bet you do! God libertarians are evil!!!!

  19. Every Single One Of Them

  20. I can think of situations where recording an arrest may cause harm. What if the arrestee is a gang member or terrorist whose associates would take revenge on innocent people for the arrest? What if hostages were being held? That said, where those circumstances don’t apply, recording should be legal. The exceptions should be few and far between.

    1. They could blur out the arresting officer’s face in those, I would think. Not thinking of all the possibilities, though.

    2. Those are not valid concerns, in the face of individual rights.

  21. HeyO!

  22. Drink!

  23. I have served the public as a “police officer” or deputy in Virginia for almost 3 decades. It is legal to video or otherwise record any officer in public. The rule makes for honest cops. The overwhelming majority of police want to serve the public and do an honest job. They do. Many have died or have been injured on duty and had to leave police work. Many more leave from stresses on the person or on the family. Many cops get divorced. There are almost 700k law enforcement officers in the entire US. The comments seem to reflect the actions of very few poor ones. Again, most police I know, at least in eastern Virginia try to do their best and act lawfully and with good ethics.

    1. It’s good that you’re posting and reading here, and in time, you’ll see that these “very few poor ones” make life worse for all the rest of us, police or not. Their actions will often be obscured by the “good cops” unless and until it gets completely out of hand because it’s usually considered poor PR to admit a bad cop was hired.

  24. I know from some people I talk to that some people fear that the video’s could be used to have legitimate criminals released. I have a solution. Pass a law so that public employees have no privacy rights when doing work related things (taxpayers are the employers) and so that the “fruit of the poisonous tree” in court can still be used against defendants if police officers are willing to accept some jail time or fines for violating constitutional rights. That way, a police officer has the option to “sacrifice themselves” for the greater good in extreme situations while offering even more protection for individual’s rights. If a police oficer does not want to accept jail time and/or fines, they can simply allow MINOR constitutional violations to be thrown out. Major ones should still be sueable offenses. The individual officers and not the government should be the one who has to pay out. That’s my 2 cents. Any thoughts?

    1. Legitimate criminals? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

      1. Normally, it is, lol. I worded that poorly. I just meant that there is fear that the videos would cause some criminals to be let off because of what is on the video even if they were a criminal.

        1. Several issues with that: For one, i’m pretty sure police and prosecuters would find away around that, and it would just end up permitting evidence that was gathered unconstitutionally. Secondly, if the individual officer is held financially responsible, you would see a lot less lawsuits. The cops should be criminally charged for criminal acts, and their employers should be held responsible. Most attorneys that take on cases of gov’t abuse do so on contingincy, and that really only makes sense if there is a solvent defendent. Sure, you can get a judge to order that a police officer who is rotting in prison with no income owes you 200k, but if it isn’t likely that he can pay it, good luck finding an attorney to take that case.

  25. He was just a guy in plainclothes with a gun. The cop eventually identified himself.

  26. “They’ve got the legal right to pull guns, detain us, lock us up and, in some cases, shoot us. The potential for abuse is great.”

    Pretty sure everybody can do that, if a crime is being witnessed. Common law. I sure as shit won’t stand around watching if I see somebody getting beaten or mugged or raped, and I carry.

    1. Yea, but you can’t shoot someone with qualified immunity. Cops often can.

      1. Yeah. Fucking 42 U.S.C., Section 1983.

        I don’t remember where I read this, but it was only a day or so ago (yeah, bad memory), and it’s pretty insightful –

        Some safety expert was walking near one of the schools he was responsible for (to or from something), and he witnessed a cop getting his ass kicked, and when the cop was shot and dropped the gun, the safety guy (not law enforcement, note, or government official at all) ran up to him, picked up his gun, and started chasing and shooting the perpetrator.

        Now he’s looking at serious charges and time. Welcome to New York, mother-fuckers. So much for morality. Help a cop in NY, go to jail. I won’t be surprised the next time a cop is getting the life fucked out of him by some gangbangers, and the crowd of passers-by doesn’t do anything about it.

        1. *and when the cop was shot and dropped his gun

        2. I’m pretty sure the reason he is in trouble is because he went chasing after them. In pretty much every jurisdiction, you need to at least be in fear for your life. It’s not going to be hard for the prosecution to argue that he couldn’t be in fear for his life if the subjects were fleaing and he had to chase after them…I’m also pretty sure people don’t go chasing after something if they feel it’s putting them in fear of their life…

  27. Thank you for the article. Libertarianism seeks to champion rights and enable progress notably through more voluntary alternatives in public administration.

    For information on work by those using Libertarian tools worldwide, including reducing poverty and taxation, please see: http://www.Libertarian-International.org/

  28. im pretty sure a cop would suck your tool if you took video showing they werent abusing power if they were accused of abuse of power… but hell the ones who bitch about it must be doing something wrong.

    its kinda like a cop saying, well he ran so he must have been guilty.

  29. With regret, I forward this unfortunate account:


    Taxpayers will eventually have to pay this guy off.

    A National Awareness Campaign should be started with a clever sounding acronym to publicize that recording a public official is not a crime.

    1. I should say: “recording a public official in a public setting”.

  30. I love Copwatch organizations but the sheer fact that Stossel is saying this makes me think twice.

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