There are some very disturbing videos circulating the Internet right now, depicting the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of trained, armed men. Many of these videos even show individuals being shot in the back, or as they try to flee.
These are videos of police officers in America killing unarmed black men like Oscar Grant and Eric Garner. And, as the most recent case shows, without these recordings, much of America might not have any idea exactly how much of a problem this is.
Citizen videos of law enforcement encounters are more valuable than ever. And for those who are wondering—it is legal to record the police.
The police don’t always seem aware of this. There have been incidents across the country of police telling people to stop filming, and sometimes seizing their camera or smartphone, or even arresting them, when they don’t comply.
In the most recent citizen-filmed incident to gain widespread media attention, on April 4, white police officer Michael Slager shot and killed 50-year-old black man Walter Scott in the back as he ran away in North Charleston, South Carolina. Bystander Feiden Santana filmed the encounter, which started with a traffic stop. After Santana’s video surfaced, the officer was arrested and charged with murder. Santana said that he is scared of what might happen to him. He also considered deleting the video, and doing nothing with it. And Santana is not the only person who may be intimidated by the prospect of filming the police, with good reason.
That’s why, in addition to EFF Attorney Sophia Cope's legal analysis highlighting some of therecent case law establishing the right to film police officers, we’re sharing some basic information cop watchers should know.
Courts across the country have held that there is a First Amendment right to openly record the police. Courts have also held, however, that individuals cannot interfere with police operations, and that wiretapping statutes that prohibit secretly recording may apply to recording the police. But underlying these decisions is the understanding that recording the police is constitutionally protected.
Know Your Rights and Be Safe
While it has been established that individuals have the right to record the police, what happens on the street frequently does not match the law. Also, if you’re thinking about filming the police, it’s likely you’ll have more police encounters than you otherwise would.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is a bar association that does police accountability work. The National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer program is focused on watching the police at protests.CopBlock and Cop Watch are loosely organized groups that have chapters across the country, and provide resources on filming the police everyday.
Here are the most essential things to keep in mind:
As the conversation about police accountability continues to take place across the country, body cameras are often proposed as a solution, and they are getting a lot of attention in the news right now. “Bodycam” recordings have made a difference in some cases. But many transparency and accountability advocates including EFF, have expressed reasonable doubts about their efficacy. States are trying to grapple with the many privacy issues they raise, mostly by considering exempting the footage from public records act requests. And while “bodycams” may be a contentious subject, there’s little doubt that it is citizen footage of law enforcement encounters that has really fueled the current debate about police accountability.
As North Charleston Pastor Nelson Rivers said: “If not for the video, we would still be following the narrative from the officer. If not for this video, the story would be entirely different.” Scott’s family agrees. After watching the video, his brother stated: “I think that if that man never showed the video we would not be at the point that we’re at right now.” And North Charleston Councilwoman Dorothy Williams had this to say: “I'm asking all the citizens of North Charleston to continue taping.”
You don’t have to live in North Charleston to know why that’s a good idea.
Disclosure: Nadia Kayyali serves as the Vice-President for the National Lawyers Guild SF Bay Area Chapter, has served on the NLG’s national board, and has been involved with the NLG legal observer program nationally for over four years.
Please visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where this article first appeared, for the latest news in digital privacy and civil liberties.
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