Ethics Tip For Police Being Videoed: Smile!

Every now and then one learns about a practice that seems so obviously wrong that it is difficult to believe it could really occur in America. The police’s broad power to confiscate property used in the commission of a crime stunned me when I first read about it in law school. Municipal government use of the power of eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to corporate interests for profit-making development, as in the Kelo case, was another example. During the health care reform debate, I learned that our elected representatives not only didn’t bother to read major legislation, they thought there was nothing wrong with not reading it. I’m still scratching my head over that one.

The increasingly common phenomenon of police arresting citizens for recording arrests and other police activity on video is the most recent example of conduct that is so wrong it is hard to believe it happens—but it does. Reason columnist and blogger Radley Balko has chronicled the practice thoroughly in several reports, and he is not alone. (The Washington Post recently reported on these arrests, as well as the related outrage of police arresting citizens for taking photos of public buildings.)

Apparently police cite outdated wire-tapping laws to justify the arrests, but they are Constitutionally and ethically indefensible. What is the defense, exactly, other than the fact that some officers find it inconvenient to have to explain evidence of their misconduct? Not much. A USA Today editorial  stated the obvious, which is that citizens have every right to photograph and video-record the conduct of public servants, and punishing them for doing so is a practice for dictatorships, not democracies. It said:

“Websites that monitor these cases have posted stories from around the country of police ordering people to stop videotaping or photographing them, sometimes violently. Most of the time, the police apparently either don’t understand the law or are deliberately misstating it to bully people into putting away their cameras or cellphones.”

Here is a sample of the “rebuttal,’ if you can call it that, issued by a police union:

“No one can speak knowledgeably about a piece of video without viewing it through the prism of experience and training. It is not a question of whether a citizen has the right to videotape an incident, but a matter of ensuring that any officer involved has the right to due process and fair, objective treatment independent of subjective and sometimes ill-informed opinion based on a videotape showing but a vignette of a significant event.”

Right: we understand why videos make police officers nervous—especially those who have done something wrong. The fact that videos can be misinterpreted or taken out of context (I certainly would not want to see Andrew Breitbart behind a camcorder if I were a police officer arresting a suspect…) is not a justification for police stopping citizens from making them. That’s a separate ethical issue entirely. Testimony can be misleading too; that doesn’t mean that police officers can harass witnesses.

The lame and pallid “defense” published in USA Today shows that there really is no defense: the practice has no justification whatsoever. If the states and police authorities really want to end it, it should be easy to end.

5 thoughts on “Ethics Tip For Police Being Videoed: Smile!

  1. When I would try to impress upon my new deputies the magnitude of the authority that has been entrusted to them by the community, I told them they have the authority to take away four things. Under the right circumstances, they have the power to take away freedom. They have the power to take away life. They have the power to take away property. And they have the power to take away children. No one else in our society is entrusted with that kind of power. It is a sacred trust that should never be misused and exercised only when necessary to accomplish a lawful objective.

    Sheriff Ray

  2. Video is everywhere and, although context and completeness are very relevant, it can be a great tool for uncovering the truth. Modern police officers need to “get it” that much of what they do will be taped and under most circumstances there is nothing they can, or should, do about it.

    My experience with video is they exhonerate more officers than they condemn.

  3. They have video recorders in police cars now to record traffic stops, right?

    So how long before some defense attorney uses that police union’s statement as a reason to throw out the video evidence?


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