7 Rules for Recording Police
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If you’re approaching the scene of an investigation or an accident, police will likely order you to move back. Depending on the circumstances, you might become involved in an intense negotiation to determine the “appropriate” distance you need to stand back to avoid “interfering” with their work.
If you feel you’re already standing at a reasonable distance, you may say something like, “Officer, I have a right to be here. I’m filming for documentation purposes and not interfering with your work.” It’s then up to you to decide how far back you’re willing to stand to avoid arrest.
Rule #4: Don’t Share Your Video with Police
If you capture video of police misconduct or brutality, but otherwise avoid being identified yourself, you can anonymously upload it to YouTube. This seems to be the safest legal option. For example, a Massachusetts woman who videotaped a cop beating a motorist with a flashlight posted the video to the Internet. Afterwards, one of the cops caught at the scene filed criminal wiretapping charges against her. (As usual, the charges against her were later dropped.)
On the other hand, an anonymous videographer uploaded footage of an NYPD officer body-slamming a man on a bicycle to YouTube. Although the videographer was never revealed, the video went viral. Consequently, the manufactured assault charges against the bicyclist were dropped, the officer was fired, and the bicyclist eventually sued the city and won a $65,000 settlement.
Rule #5: Prepare to be Arrested
Keene, New Hampshire resident Dave Ridley is the avatar of the new breed of journalist/activist/filmmaker testing the limits of the First Amendment right to record police. Over the past few years he’s uploaded the most impressive collection of first-person police encounter videos I’ve ever seen.
Ridley’s calm demeanor and knowledge of the law paid off last August after he was arrested for trespassing at an event featuring Vice President Joe Biden. The arresting officers at his trial claimed he refused to leave when ordered to do so. But the judge acquitted him when his confiscated video proved otherwise.
With respect to the law Ridley declares, “If you’re rolling the camera, be very open and upfront about it. And look at it as a potential act of civil disobedience for which you could go to jail.” It’s indeed disturbing that citizens who are not breaking the law should prepare to be arrested, but in the current legal fog this is sage advice.
“Shut it off, or I’ll arrest you.”
At this point you are risking arrest in order to test the boundaries of free speech. So if police say they’ll arrest you, believe them. You may comply by saying something like “Okay, Officer. But I’m turning the camera off under protest.”
If you keep recording, brace yourself for arrest. Try your best not to drop your camera, but do not physically resist. As with any arrest, you have the right to remain silent until you speak with a lawyer. Use it.
Remember that the camera might still be recording. So keep calm and act like you’re being judged by a jury of millions of your YouTube peers, because one day you might be.
Rule #6: Master Your Technology
Smartphone owners now outnumber users of more basic phones. At any moment there are more than 100 million Americans in reach of a device that can capture police misconduct and share it with the world in seconds.