New York City Mayor Eric Adams said on Wednesday that bystanders filming the police too closely "is not acceptable, and won't be tolerated."
When he won the Democratic nomination last summer, Adams was seen as a moderate. A former New York Police Department (NYPD) captain turned state senator, Adams rejected calls to defund the police at a time when the idea had gained currency on his party's left flank. But Adams' term in office has not been a civil libertarian's dream. For example, despite criticizing the "stop and frisk" policies practiced under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Adams now plans to implement his own version.
On Wednesday, Adams appeared at the New York City Police Academy in Queens to announce his reintroduction of the NYPD's controversial anti-gun unit. In response to a reporter's question regarding citizens who want to "document what's going on," Adams responded forcefully:
"That is one thing that we are going to do: We are going to teach the public how to properly document…If an officer is trying to prevent a dispute from taking place and deescalate that dispute, they should [not] have someone standing over their shoulders with a camera in their face, yelling and screaming at them, without even realizing what the encounter is all about. There's a proper way to police, and there's a proper way to document…Stop being on top of my police officers while they're carrying out their jobs. That is not acceptable, and it won't be tolerated."
Adams also added, "If your iPhone can't catch that picture with you being at a safe distance, then you need to upgrade your iPhone."
That last jab was likely intended to be tongue in cheek, but it fits with the overall patronizing tone of Adams's answer, which implied that there is a right way and a wrong way to hold the police accountable. While Adams did affirm the general right to film—allowing that "You can safely document an incident, and we can use that footage to analyze what happened"—his overall answer on the subject leaves much to be desired.
Bystanders filming police as they interact with the public is not new, but it exploded into mainstream consciousness with the 2020 murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. While the Minneapolis Police Department's initial report merely mentioned that a man died "after [a] medical incident during police interaction," bystander footage made clear what actually happened.
But despite being affirmed by multiple circuit courts throughout the country, the right of citizens to record the police remains controversial among police and lawmakers. Officers continue to harass citizens for filming them, sometimes violently, even when the officers have not been obstructed in any way. And multiple states have attempted to pass legislation restricting the practice further. What those bills tend to do is establish minimum distances for recording, anywhere between five and 30 feet, and say that anyone filming is not allowed to get any closer to an officer. But these laws, especially those with high minimum distances, are quite likely unconstitutional. There is a clear difference between interfering with an officer's duties, and merely recording the event, and it is dangerous for lawmakers to conflate the two.
Though citizens should not obstruct a police officer in the course of his duties (which is already a crime, including in New York), a bystander should be permitted to film that officer. People have a First Amendment right to film police interactions, even if they are "yelling and screaming," in Adams' words. After just a couple of months in office, Adams' record on police reform is already disappointing.