Whether you’ve got the newest iPhone, Droid, Blackberry, or even a
flip phone from five years ago, chances are it has a camera, and
accordingly, great power. Although the prevalence of recording
technology can infringe upon privacy, it can also serve as a
convenient, potent tool capable of protecting civil rights. That is of
course, if aren’t prohibited to exercise your First Amendment rights
by local laws or arrest. In the past several years, numerous
incidences of people recording police encounters and subsequently
being arrested have been reported and have now prompted state action.
Once such occurrence involved a woman in Rochester, New York, taping
an officer perform a traffic stop while standing on her own property.
Although the officer warned her to go inside her home several times,
she refused and was ultimately arrested and charged with obstructing
governmental administration. Another more recent episode occurred in
Pearl, Mississippi, where two teenagers recording a police
investigation from their apartment balcony were arrested, had the
phone seized, and were charged with disorderly conduct.
The argument most typically advanced in favor of prohibiting recording
of police, as adopted by the Rochester police department, is that
officers must ensure their own safety. Accordingly, they are offered
great discretion and power as the situation warrants. Under such a
policy, even where videotaping is not prohibited, where the officer
feels their safety is threatened, they have the authority to order
someone to cease. Such was the scenario that occurred in Rochester.
Other pro-police reasoning asserts that recording can increase
officers’ exposure to civil suits, especially if such videos are
Such arguments seem to miss the forest for the trees. First of all, it
is exactly because of the vast discretion afforded officers that
public surveillance is desirable. Of course police safety is a very
important policy concern, but any (armed and trained) officer would be
hard-pressed to reasonably determine that a 28 year-old woman holding
just a cell phone presented a threat to his/or safety. Moreover, the
persons in these cases were recording a public servant performing a
public duty; any concern of privacy should be summarily dismissed in
the interest of civil rights protection. Insofar as civil suits are
concerned, if anything a record of an officer lawfully performing his
duties only insulates him from liability. Finally, the potential of
people editing videos is laughable at best; it would take considerable
skill to convincingly edit any video and have it survive the rules of
evidence and the video would only be one piece of the record anyway.
There are less restrictive means of protecting officers and preventing
such fraud than outright forbidding the activity.
Due to public backlash, states are now beginning to address the
problem. For instance, the Connecticut legislature is currently
debating a bill that would protect any person videotaping or
photographing by subjecting officers to civil liability if they
interfere. Similarly, in Illinois, a ban on recording officers is
currently up for a repeal vote. The current law allows videotaping but
makes it a felony to record audio without both parties’ consent.
Notably, in two cases of persons charged with violating this statute,
the law was deemed unconstitutional. Both of these bills reflect
progressive reasoning and compromise between civil rights,
constitutional protections, privacy concerns and protection of
officers. The Connecticut bill allows officers to stop a recording if
they deem it necessary to enforce a law, protect public safety,
preserve integrity of crime scene, or protect privacy of victim or
third party. Similarly, the Illinois bill imposes a felony for
altering videos. Such laws would ultimately serve as a means of
securing First Amendment rights and civil protections without unduly
burdening officers’ performance.