The last few years have seen a slew of video and audio recordings of police officers behaving badly. Recent examples include Floyd Dent, who was placed in a choke hold and punched out by two Michigan Police officers for allegedly running a stop light and a New York State Police Officer who was caught on video cursing and brutally slapping a man for asking why the officer needed to search his car. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2827757/Cop-caught-camera-slapping-man-wouldn-t-let-search-car.html.
The latest outrage involves a non uniformed New York City Police officer who illegally stopped and threatened to arrest, screamed at, cursed, berated, ridiculed and otherwise bullied a foreign-born New York City Uber driver. The driver’s unpardonable sin was to honk his horn at the officer for parking his unmarked police car sans the use of his turn signal.
While not all officers are bad, a significant number are. Hence, the above conduct is nothing new. It is the recording and subsequent disclosure of these and other incidents of malfeasance that is novel. And if you think police conduct is dreadful, you should see the offenses routinely committed by prosecutors and judges. Why it’s enough to give law enforcement a bad name.
There are therefore ongoing attempts to curtail the recording of police officers. Denver police, who shot and killed a teenage girl after claiming she was trying to run them over in a stolen car, ordered her surviving friends not to record the aftermath. Denver police apparently have a history of such suppression http://photographyisnotacrime.com/2015/01/denver-cops-kill-teen-order-witnesses-not-record-aftermath/.
Washington D. C police officers have attempted to prevent arrest from being videotaped. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEL8CdV9HUQ and a Oregon State Trooper incorrectly told a citizen that it was illegal to video record her in public. http://photographyisnotacrime.com/2013/12/oregon-state-trooper-tells-citizen-illegal-video-record-public/.
State legislators have also responded with bad law and bad policy. For example, Texas Republican State Legislature, Jason Villalba has sponsored a bill to make it a misdemeanor for anyone other than “traditional media” to record police within 25 feet, or within 100 feet if the person carries a handgun.
We concede there have been some tense encounters between the police and those who film them. However, this and other legislative attempts to prevent the recording of police actions are both unnecessary and unconstitutional.
First, there is First Amendment protection for people photographing and recording in public.” According to Mickey Osterreicher, an attorney with the National Press Photographers Association, as long as you don’t get in their way, it’s perfectly legal to take photos and videos of police officers everywhere in the United States. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/13/filming-police-officers_n_5676940.html.
And given the ever-changing world of journalism, reporting, news gathering and information dissemination, it is unclear what is meant by “traditional media”. The phrase “the person carrying a gun” is equally confusing. Is said person the recorder of the incident, the suspect, the police or perhaps some uninvolved bystander?
In addition, the police possess almost limitless power to determine the parameters of a crime scene. And the criminal statutes of every state already make it a crime to interfere with or impede police activity.
Nor can law enforcement claim a reasonable expectation of privacy. What we are discussing is the recording of the police in the performance of their official duties in public settings in the bright light of day. It must never be forgotten that the police are our public servants, we are not theirs. As such we have every right to know of and record their activities.
None of the attempts to suppress the recording of police conduct have anything to do with public safety. Nor do they enhance respect for the law or law enforcement. They are instead matters of public relations; of image and damage control. Their purpose is to protect the police; to shield them from the consequences of their own misconduct.
And it is more than ironic, that the criminal justice system demands its own privacy while ignoring ours. It claims our fingerprints, hair and blood samples. Its agents shine flashlights in our vehicles, stops us as they please and search our homes, cars, bank accounts and computers with impunity. It literally insists on the right to witness all that we say and do.
The sad fact is that law enforcement abhors the truth, especially about itself. Nor will the system voluntarily hold itself accountable. The recording of police officers is akin to lifting a rock and watching the vermin it hides run for cover. It strips law enforcement of the cloak of propriety, the illusion of respectability, the pretense of good faith.
More importantly, it removes the ability of the police to lie and get away with it. But for the recordings referenced above the offending officers would have fabricated the truth and everyone in the system, including the prosecutors, judges, juries and appellate courts would have embraced these falsehoods without question. It would have been the victims of this abuse who would have been prosecuted and convicted.
In summation, evil prefers the shadows. This is especially true of the evil done in our name. If recording the police was not working, there would be no objection to doing so.
So keep filming. Don’t interfere with the police and don’t violate the law. But keep recording their activities. This is the sunlight that not only reveals the truth about law enforcement, but freshens, cleans, sanitizes and otherwise disinfectants a system in dire need of reformation.
And to all have a Happy Easter.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum