Filming the police (at a safe distance) is not a crime

In some parts of the country this seems to be a settled question but it’s still cropping up in a disturbing number of places. We’re seeing incidents where court cases are popping up over instances where private citizens out on public property wind up in court with the cops after filming the activities of police on the streets. This can go one of two ways: the citizen is in trouble for doing the filming and faces charges or the cops are on the stand because of how they reacted to the filming. Neither should be showing up on the docket, but they still are, such as this case in New York from Christmas Eve. (Yahoo News)


Charges against a police officer accused of arresting a man for filming him with a cellphone camera have drawn fresh attention to a decades-old issue: citizens’ rights to record police.

Officer Jonathan Munoz pleaded not guilty Tuesday to official misconduct charges in the March 2014 arrest of 21-year-old Jason Disisto.

Even before Munoz’s arrest, Disisto contended in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court that New York Police Department officers intimidate or arrest people recording police activity. He cited instances since 2005 when people, including journalists, were arrested after recording police with cameras or phones.

Police spokeswoman Sophia Mason says NYPD employees are reminded not to interfere with people recording police activity.

This is a case where the officer got into trouble for overreacting and using his badge against someone who was, by all descriptions, filming an arrest from an appropriate distance. The protestations by the police union here are understandable but misguided as I see it. I should preface this by noting that I’m about as “pro-cop” as they come and anyone who has been reading this space for a while will tell you the same. But the excuses being invoked by the union in response to these allegations really just make the cops wind up looking worse.

There are times when bystanders can most definitely cause a problem through their desire to record police activity and everyone needs to be educated about such situations on both sides of the debate. If you are grabbing your cell phone and dashing up in the middle of an arrest or confrontation where weapons are drawn or tensions are escalating you’re only asking to either get yourself injured or hinder the cops from preventing someone else from getting hurt. You need to keep a reasonably safe distance away.


The other objections about people using videos to torment or harass officers are understandable but I’m afraid that’s the way of the world in the 21st century. It’s true that both activists and their supporters in the media will show edited versions of videos and they generally only show the cop’s response without the minutes leading up to it, which is grossly biased reporting. But at the same time, the sooner we have body cameras and dash cams for all the cops, the sooner we can get that full context out in response to accusations if the cops are doing nothing wrong. (Which is the case in the vast, vast majority of instances.) Everyone has cameras these days and clips show up on social media (followed by the mainstream media) like lightning. There’s just no away around it.

Some municipalities have overreacted in the opposite direction and actually tried passing laws to punish people who record the activities of the police in public. That was the case in Illinois one year ago when they passed their new eavesdropping law. (HuffPo)

Even though the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the state’s overbroad eavesdropping law, which had led to multiple citizens being arrested and charged with felonies for filming police officers without their consent, earlier this year, on Dec. 4 the Illinois Legislature introduced a new bill that would have nearly the same effect.

Senate Bill 1342 would criminalize any “oral communication between 2 or more persons” that was surreptitiously recorded where one party, including police, had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that police in performance of their duties in “public,” do not have an expectation of privacy, but did not define “public.”


That whole “public vs private” question is at the heart of it. The majority of police confrontations seem to take place on the streets or on private property in full view of the public roads and walkways. There really is no expectation of “privacy” for anyone under those conditions and even less so for police who are ostensibly doing the business of the public and being paid on their dime. Now, if the pursuit of a criminal takes the cops inside a residence or other private structure which doesn’t belong to you, then you have no business following them in there and I’ll have little sympathy for you if you wind up turning into collateral damage. But out on the public roads? They belong to all of us.

Since activists claim they want more transparency in police/community relations, this is one way to get it. And as long as the cops aren’t acting totally out of bounds they’re going to win these cases nearly every time. Trying to ban people from filming the public activities of law enforcement officials is simply the wrong way to go and will only lead to further mistrust, providing fuel to the media when they want to bash the police.


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