I’d rather been hoping that police forces around the country would have gotten the message about video recordings of their official activities by this point. There’s been a shift in attitudes over recent years, with secrecy being shunned when it comes to police work unless revelations could endanger ongoing investigations and risk blowing a case at trial. Unfortunately, the New York City Police Department has found themselves in another situation where they’ve seen fit to issue guidelines allowing officers to arrest civilians for recording their interactions with them in a space open and available to the public. (NY Post)

Civilians seeking to video record their encounters with cops inside NYPD precincts should hit pause — the practice could land them in cuffs.

A day after a civilian posted video of himself launching into a vulgar tirade against a 28th Precinct sergeant inside the Upper Manhattan station house, the department issued new guidelines directing cops to arrest those who won’t stop recording.

Anyone videotaping inside these facilities will first be asked to stop recording, according to the memo, released on Wednesday and citing a recent update to the department’s patrol guide. If a person won’t stop recording, they will be asked to leave — and those who still refuse can be arrested, the document states.

However, recording police activity in public spots — streets, parks and private property — is a First Amendment right, the memo reminds officers.

This sounds like a knee-jerk reactionary policy to an unpleasant situation, and it’s an unhealthy reaction. For what it’s worth, I can understand and sympathize with the officers involved in the incident described in the article. There’s a recording of the encounter, showing a very aggressive man inside the 28thth Precinct building spewing a filthy tirade against the officers there, including threats to sexually assault one of the female officers. That’s not how anyone wants to spend their day at work, to be sure.

But even looking just at this one encounter, banning the public from recording their interactions with the police is not only not the solution, but could be detrimental. If there was no recording of this encounter, the man doing the yelling could have gone to the press and told any sort of fabricated tale he liked. But now it’s on the record for all to see and nobody with an ounce of respect for civil society is going to be taking his side.

Swinging out from there to the larger picture, the use of dashboard and body cams has had a definite, positive effect on police work and their relations with the public. If officers are accused of malfeasance but claim they are innocent, we can just go to the tape (as they say on sports networks). If the officer is innocent, that will be shown. If they turn out to be a bad apple who was breaking the law, they can be held accountable. Either result improves the chances that the public will trust the outcome.

Similarly, when private citizens tape interactions with the police out in the public square, that can also eliminate much of the he said, she said angle on many of these stories. And the courts have already upheld the right of the public to record their own law enforcement officials going about their duties in public. Let’s apply that theory to this latest incident. True, it wasn’t taking place outdoors, but it was in the publicly accessible portion of the police station. That’s a building paid for by the taxpayers just as the police are employees of the taxpayers. Trying to ban taping of what takes place there, to say nothing of arresting people who fail to comply, does nothing but breed suspicion about the cops among the public.

This policy is a bad idea and should be quickly reconsidered. New York has been making huge strides forward in both slashing the crime rate and rebuilding trust with the people they protect and serve. It would be a shame to start sliding backwards now.