Two weeks ago the NYPD sent officers a memo reminding them that "members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions." In fact, "intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment." The memo said cops may take action against camera-wielding civilians only if they "interfere with police operations." The directive sounds similar to one issued by Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier two years ago. If you are wondering why such reminders are considered necessary, it is because of incidents like this, described in a federal lawsuit filed last year by Brooklyn resident Dick George:
On or about June 14, 2012, at approximately 6:00 p.m., Plaintiff was sitting in his motor vehicle and parked at or near the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Albemarle Road, Brooklyn, New York, when he observed Lt. [Dennis] Ferber, Sgt. [Patrick] Golden and PO [Stacey] Robinson exit their unmarked police vehicle and approach three young, black youths congregated on the sidewalk and immediately begin to frisk and search them.
Plaintiff took photographs of this encounter between the defendant police officers and the three youths with his cellular telephone.
As the defendant police officers were returning to their vehicle, Plaintiff commented to one of the youths that "in situations like that, next time make sure and ask to see a badge number or some identification from the police," or words to that effect.
Having apparently heard what Plaintiff had said, Lt. Ferber retorted, "What did he just say to them, get our badge number…let's go get him," or words to that effect.
The defendant police officers then entered their police vehicle and began following Plaintiff's vehicle.
After stopping George's car, the cops roughed him up, handcuffed him, and took him to the precinct house, where he was strip-searched, locked in a cell, and charged with disorderly conduct. When he got his cellphone back after being released with a desk appearance ticket, he found that the photos of the stop-and-frisk encounter had been deleted.
According to George's complaint, the cops repeatedly told him he was getting what he deserved for "being an activist." Ferber allegedly said something like: "Now we are going to give you what you deserve for meddling in our business and when we finish with you, you can sue the city for $5,000,000 and get rich. We don't care."
That estimate was off by a factor of 40. The New York Daily News reported on Monday that the city agreed to settle George's lawsuit for $125,000. "After a thorough review of the case facts," a lawyer for the city said, "it was in the best interest of all to resolve this matter without costly litigation and trial."
The officers, of course, are not on the hook for any of that money, which will instead come out of taxpayers' pockets. And judging from the comments reported by George, the prospect of litigation does not deter this sort of unlawful bullying. The problem was not that the cops didn't realize they were violating George's rights; it was that they did not care, because they did not expect to suffer any negative consequences as a result—for good reason, according to the lawsuit:
The supervisory staff of the NYPD has consistently failed to investigate allegations such as those contained herein and to discipline officers who have violated NYPD guidelines. The investigation of these incidents by central office and/or supervisory staff reflects a bias in favor of uniformed officers. Furthermore, officers and staff who are known to have violated an individual's civil rights in one command are often transferred by NYPD to another command rather than be disciplined, demoted or fired by the NYPD.
The cost of settling lawsuits like George's helps explain the recent NYPD memo. But reminding cops that they are supposed to respect people's constitutional rights will not accomplish much unless they suffer personally for violating them. Since courts have ruled that cops do not receive qualified immunity in cases like this (because the right to record them is well established), officers can theoretically find themselves owing damages to the people they victimize. But the usual practice in settling cases is to drop claims against individual cops along with claims against the city and the police department. Maybe it is time to reconsider that practice. The threat of financial ruin would be harder to laugh off than the threat of taxpayer-funded damages.