Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cops, Rights, and Videotape : Open Thread

It's tricky working through the complex sets of opinions on what is reasonable in the case of laws in certain states that make it a crime (often a felony) to videotape a police officer interacting with the public. On one hand, you have the widely held opinion that if a police officer isn't doing anything wrong, why should he/she mind being taped (and, they use that same logic in reverse when citizens complain about cameras on every street corner). On the other hand, you have civil rights issues: Is a police officer less entitled to privacy than other people?

The overall context for this debate though is, as as noted by Glenn Reynolds (whom I so rarely agree with on political issues), that...
In the old days, ordinary people didn't have much privacy, but neither did big shots. By contrast, today's government officials and big corporations often want to watch us, but they don't want to be watched in return. Shopping malls are full of security cameras, but many have signs at the entrance telling customers that no photography or video recording is allowed. Police cars have dashboard cameras, cities and counties are posting red-light and speed-limit cameras, and it seems that the dream of many government officials is to put every public space under 24-hour video watch. But try shooting photos or video of police or ­other public officials as they go about their business and you might find yourself in wrist restraints.
Or, in some states at least, you might find yourself in prison. As Radley Balko notes in a really good summary of the issue on Reason (read it all):
The debate over whether citizens should be permitted to record on-duty police officers intensified this summer. High profile incidents in Maryland, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere spurred coverage of the issue from national media outlets ranging from the Associated Press to Time to NPR.
The details of the Maryland case getting the most attention are horrendous. This Washington Post editorial explains:

ANTHONY GRABER deserved a traffic ticket for speeding on Interstate 95 while popping wheelies. What the 25-year-old Abingdon, Md., resident did not deserve was to find himself, weeks later, facing a lengthy prison sentence for violating a Maryland wiretapping law.

As The Post's Annys Shin explained, Mr. Graber's troubles started when he mounted a video camera on his motorcycle helmet. Mr. Graber was pulled over by an unmarked car in early March while on his ill-advised romp on I-95. A man in street clothes and wielding a gun emerged from the vehicle and ordered Mr. Graber to get off the bike. Only then did Maryland State Trooper Joseph D. Uhler identify himself as a police officer and holster his weapon.

The helmet cam captured video and audio of the encounter with the trooper; Mr. Graber posted the piece on YouTube one week later. He soon found himself the subject of a raid in which law enforcement officers seized computer equipment and the video camera from his home. Mr. Graber was indicted for violating a Maryland law that prohibits the audiotaping of a person without his consent. Between the wiretapping charges and the traffic violations, Mr. Graber could face up to 16 years behind bars.

I side with those who feel "Photography [or Video] is Not a Crime, It’s a First Amendment Right." I think in the way that more and more we upload photos or videos to the internet or email them to our friends, it's becoming even more so a fundamental issue of free speech. It's how we're communicating with each other.

I guess I can see the potential for video to be used to harass people, though, in extreme situations (and I do believe people have the right to a certain degree of privacy...civility and sanity demand it), but I suspect there are stalking laws that would protect most of us from the most egregious abuses. Whether public servants should enjoy the same expectations while on their job that private citizens should with regards to privacy is the central question here to my mind.

Where I see allowing anyone to videotape police officers playing an important role in a democracy is as a check on abuse of power. From Rodney King to the McKenna case, it's only because some citizen caught abuse on tape that the police didn't get away with it. But such cases are often inflated to make just such a point. As Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, noted:
You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report," Pasco says. "Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.
Trust, but verify, as Reagan said. Video is a good form of verification.

Consider this an open thread on the impact of laws that prohibit videotaping police on free speech.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"On one hand, you have the widely held opinion that if a police officer isn't doing anything wrong, why should he/she mind being taped (and, they use that same logic in reverse when citizens complain about cameras on every street corner). On the other hand, you have civil rights issues: Is a police officer less entitled to privacy than other people?"

The essence of the question of civil rights has to do with the power disparity between, in this case, cops and non-cops.

So: Civil rights issues are issues of power, not privacy. A bureaucratic machine (government or otherwise) has more power than an individual. A cop in uniform should expect to be videotaped, given the authority that uniform is expected to convey.

Take off the uniform and you rejoin the ranks of those who can expect reasonable privacy.

8/12/2010 06:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken Hagler said...

It's not even about reasonable privacy. You can photograph (or videotape) someone any time as long as they have no expectation of privacy. The cops don't want to be treated like everyone else--they are now as far as the law is concerned, and they don't like it. They want to law to treat them as special and privileged.

(Well, it already does treat cops as a superior class of being, of course, I mean in this particular case.)

8/13/2010 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

I think you'll find that most cops all over the world are above the law, and well aware of it.
Keep videotaping them, even if it means breaking the(ir) law.

8/19/2010 03:58:00 PM  

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