One of the worst consequences of wars, including the so-called ‘war on terror’, is that in the name of defense and safety they give the security forces increased and largely unchecked power. When people with power over others such as police, TSA and DEA agents, and other government agents can also avoid public scrutiny of their actions, it inevitably leads to abuse.
The ubiquity of cameras in cell phones has resulted in ordinary citizens being able to capture cases of excessive force used by police on people who are either simply going about their business or exercising their legal rights. Some police have reacted by either ordering bystanders to stop recording them or confiscating the devices or even assaulting them. Such actions are clearly illegal since courts have ruled that the public has the right to record the actions of police going about their duties in public places.
As part of the settlement of a case brought by Jerome Vorus with the aid of the ACLU who had been told by police following a traffic stop that he could not record them, the Washington DC police chief put out an admirable set of guidelines for her police officers that have been described as “shockingly reasonable”.
“A bystander has the same right to take photographs or make recordings as a member of the media,” Chief Lanier writes. The First Amendment protects the right to record the activities of police officers, not only in public places such as parks and sidewalks, but also in “an individual’s home or business, common areas of public and private facilities and buildings, and any other public or private facility at which the individual has a legal right to be present.”
Lanier says that if an officer sees an individual recording his or her actions, the officer may not use that as a basis to ask the citizen for ID, demand an explanation for the recording, deliberately obstruct the camera, or arrest the citizen. And she stresses that under no circumstances should the citizen be asked to stop recording.
That applies even in cases where the citizen is recording “from a position that impedes or interferes with the safety of members or their ability to perform their duties.” In that situation, she says, the officer may ask the person to move out of the way, but the officer “shall not order the person to stop photographing or recording.”
She also notes that “a person has the right to express criticism of the police activity being observed.”
Police also cannot take a person’s camera away, erase information from the device, or order the owner to do so.
Of course, it is one thing to have a set of rules and quite another to have police officers obey them. The very next day comes a report of DC police violating those same rules set by their boss. To be fair, it may be that the word had not trickled down to everyone as yet.
I’d like to see all police departments adopt these same policies and abide by them.