We live in a country where police officers are sworn to serve and protect the public, and most of them do. But as with any group of people, there are bound to be some “bad eggs” — a term which becomes exaggerated when the bad egg in question is in a power of authority and carries a gun, nightstick, and pepper spray. So who protects the public against the police?
The public does — with the help of cell phone cameras. I don’t know if there’s been an increase in police brutality, or if more witnesses just happen to have access to camera phones, but more and more instances of police acting with excessive (and sometimes even deadly) force have been caught on camera. These videos are showing up on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and are bringing public awareness to police brutality.
But because many of these videos are resulting in police officers losing their jobs and tarnished opinions of law enforcement, some states are passing and bending existing laws to make recording a police officer illegal — even if they are in a public place, even if there is a crime happening.
The trick is that some states, such as Massachusetts, are “two-party” consent states, meaning that when a conversation is recorded all parties involved must give their consent to the recording, otherwise it is considered to be illegal. Video cameras and cell phones with video taking capabilities often record audio as well, so filming an instance of excessive police force is technically illegal in these states because the officers did not consent to the audio recording. Television news crews are exempt from this law, because it is deemed to be obvious to all that the cameraperson is recording.
In Decemeber of 2008 Jon Surmacz took cellphone footage of police using what Surmacz considered to be “unnecessary roughness” to break up a party in Brighton, MA. Police officers arrested Surmacz for “illegal surveillance.” The charges were eventually dropped because of Surmacz’s openess about filming, but Surmacz said he never thought recording in public would be illegal. “Had I recorded an officer saving someone’s life, I almost guarantee you that they wouldn’t have come up to me and say [sic], ‘Hey, you just recorded me saving that person’s life. You’re under arrest.”
Although many of the cases involving police arresting the videographer have led to the charges being dismissed, the intimidation level is still there — no one should have to fear being arrested for filming public figures in a public place. Thankfully, in spite of these laws, many people still film and bring public awareness to unjust things happening to those without power.
If you are going to film a police officer on the job doing something that seems wrong (or right — we should acknowledge the good things officers do every day, as well) here is some advice based on the research I’ve done for this post:
- If you can, try to find out in advance what the laws are in your state regarding filming and wire-tapping, especially if you’re living in one of the “two-party” consent states.
- Make sure you are not in the police officers’ way. If you are then you are more likely to be considered a threat or an obstruction to their work and they may arrest you on those grounds.
- If you do live in a “two-party” state, you may just want to consider just taking pictures (or if possible, disable the microphone on your video camera or cell phone). If you are filming and an officer asks if your phone has audio recording capabilities then be honest — lying will almost undoubtedly make things worse.
- If police officers try to confiscate your cell phone, respectfully decline and find a lawyer immediately.
(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so none of the above suggestions should be taken as legal advice.)
Image via Yannick Gingras