That's What You Get for
Filming the Police
May 2015 By Sam Adler-Bell, Truthout | News Analysis
One evening in September 2014, John Prince heard a scream through his window.
Filming the Police is working so well that it is becoming organized & is spreading...
He went outside. On the sidewalk in front of his home, a first-floor apartment on Elmwood Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island, two male plainclothes police officers were aggressively questioning a pair of young women.
"The cops were being really rude," Prince said, "asking intimidating questions like, 'What's in your handbag?' and 'Where are you coming from?'"
They ordered the women to sit on the curb. Prince says he saw one of the officers put his hands inside the waistband of one of the women's sweatpants.
"You're not supposed to do that," Prince called to the officer. The officer turned, told him to mind his own business and shove off.
"There is a widespread, continuing pattern of police ordering people to stop taking photos or video in public places."
But John Prince, who's lived in Providence for 45 years, did not shove off. He's a Black community organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). (Note: The author has volunteered at DARE, where he met Prince a few years ago.) He and his neighbors have fought for decades to confront a criminal legal system that, in his words, "treats people of color as if they've always already done something wrong."
Instead of "shoving off," Prince did what more and more people in heavily policed communities are doing when they witness what looks like police misconduct. He went inside, got his cell phone and came back out filming.
"Why are you doing that?" one officer asked, angry now.
"I don't like the way you're treating those women," Prince said. The cop told Prince that he and his fellow officers were undercover and instructed Prince to stop recording. Prince insisted that he had a right to film them. The officer demanded Prince's identification.
"Why do you want it?" Prince asked.
"I want to know who's filming me," said the cop. Prince knew he didn't have to show the cop his ID. He refused.
As they argued, another officer arrived on the scene. Seeing that Prince was wearing a Barack Obama hat, the third cop called out, "Hey, Obama!" The joke did not lighten the mood.
The first officer asked for Prince's ID again, more forcefully. At that moment, Prince felt a prick of fear. He took a few steps back.
As he did so, the commanding officer yelled, "Get that phone!" and the two others cops leaped over the fence between the sidewalk and the yard, charging at Prince. He turned and ran toward his house.
According to Prince, the cops caught up to him in the entranceway. One of them slammed him against the wall, badly injuring his neck. As he reached for the doorway to his apartment, one or two of the cops tackled him. His pants fell below his knees as they pushed his face against the ground. Someone grabbed the phone from his hand.
The real problem is not the law, but cops' willingness - and apparent license - to ignore it.
In their statements to internal affairs, the officers admit to jumping the fence and chasing Prince. They don't say what they intended to do if they caught him. The police claim that Prince tripped up the stairs to his house and fell into the entranceway. Detectives Francisco Guerra and Louis Gianfrancesco, the officers giving chase, say they stopped at the threshold of the building and turned around. Gianfrancesco says he found Prince's phone on the steps and placed it on the trunk of Guerra's car. They deny tampering with it.
However, Lisa Reels, who was inside Prince's apartment when all this happened, says she heard the officers tackling Prince. When she came out to see what was happening, Prince was on the floor with his pants around his ankles. The cops were out the door.
Determined to find his phone - and the video - Prince went back outside. There, he says he saw one of the cops delete the video and throw his phone into the bushes.
"That's what you get for interfering with police business," another cop said.
Reporters speak of an "epidemic" of police violence in Black communities. But there isn't one, at least not in the dictionary sense of a disease that breaks out at a particular time. What we have is an old, deadly sickness suddenly subject to an unprecedented degree of exposure. The idea of a sudden "outbreak" of police violence - beginning with the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 or Ramarley Graham in 2012 or Oscar Grant in 2009 - mistakes the moment many White Americans were forced to start paying attention to this crisis for the moment it emerged.
Police violence isn't new - nor is the impunity with which it's treated by the legal system - but the current level of public concern over its prevalence is. And individual acts of filming the police have played a big role in that change.
"There's some newfound awareness because of social media and video cameras," said President Obama on April 28, in his characteristically cautious tone, "that there are problems and challenges when it comes to how policing and our laws are applied in certain communities, and we have to pay attention to it and respond."
The protests in Baltimore were fueled, in part, by video captured by a bystander of cops dragging a handcuffed Freddie Gray into their police van. The 25-year-old can be heard screaming in pain. He was unresponsive when they arrived at the station and died a week later.
"There's no incentive for the cops not to fuck with us in the first place."
Walter Scott Sr., whose son was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina, weeks earlier, said, "I fell to my feet and my heart was broken," when he first saw footage of his son's death. But he "thanked God" that someone took the video. Without it, the real circumstances of his son's death, he said, "would never have come to light. They would have swept it under the rug, like they did so many others."
William Murphy, Freddie Gray's family's lawyer, echoed that sentiment on April 27. "Thank God for cellphone video cameras," he said, "because now the truth is finally coming out. And it's ugly."
For decades, said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, "It's been the word of uniformed police officers against the word of accused criminals - who are usually poor, Black or other minorities. Judges, prosecutors and the public have historically taken the side of the police." But videos - usually captured by camera-equipped cell phones - are beginning to change that. "There's a shift," Stanley added, "in what people are willing to believe."
Largely unaddressed in the mainstream celebration of video as a bulwark against police brutality, however, is how the act of pointing a camera at a cop is sometimes itself met with brutality - especially when, as in John Prince's case, the person behind the camera is Black.
Prince's story is a familiar one to Aidge Patterson, who coordinates a Cop Watch program for People's Justice in New York City, training individuals and organizing groups of residents to patrol their neighborhoods and record police encounters.
"When we roll out as a team, it's rare we observe any police violence. It usually puts them on their best behavior to see us in our matching shirts, disciplined and organized," Patterson told Truthout.
And that's the point. "The priority is to deter anything from happening in the first place," he added.
But that's not always how it works when residents film the police by themselves. Individual cop watchers often get arrested and charged with minor offenses - disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice or trespassing. "It's intimidation," Patterson said. "They know folks don't want to go to jail, even if they'll beat the charge later."
"The public servant should be subject to the public eye. Private individuals should be able to maintain our privacy."
The website "Photography Is Not a Crime" collects and maintains an archive of police brutality videos, many of which show cops harassing the person wielding the camera. In a recent video from Vineland, New Jersey, cops can be seen siccing a police dog on 32-year-old Phillip White, who had already been beaten and appears to be subdued. One officer then approaches the person with the camera and says, "Did you see what happened here? All of it? Okay, I'm going to need your information, and I'm going to take your phone." Phillip White died from injuries he sustained during the encounter.
Ramsey Orta - who filmed New York City Police Department (NYPD) Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner to death - has been arrested twice since Garner's murder in July 2014. His mother, brother and wife have all been arrested as well. Orta's aunt, Lisa Mercado, told Democracy Now! that after Garner's death, police cruisers regularly drove by their house in the middle of the night, shining floodlights through their windows. Orta was released from Rikers in April, after prosecutors withdrew a challenge that would have blocked him from posting bail with money raised by supporters online. He believes he and his family have been targeted by the NYPD as retaliation for filming Garner's murder.
And Feidin Santana - who filmed the video that led to the arrest of Officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott - says he initially considered deleting the footage and leaving town for fear of retaliation from the police. "The first thing he said to me ... was, how can I get protection," Santana's lawyer told NBC News. "What does he do when the people that are supposed to protect us are the ones that are turned against us?"
Their fears are well founded. Jay Stanley of the ACLU said, "There is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply." The ACLU has helped people sue departments in Boston, Portland, Philadelphia and other cities for violating their right to film police.
Stanley says the law itself is "crystal clear": You have a constitutionally protected right to film the police in public as long as you don't interfere with their activities. The US Justice Department agrees. As they wrote in a 2012 statement of interest:
The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution. They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.
Although only four federal courts have explicitly recognized a constitutional right to film police, legal scholars tend to agree with the Justice Department that recording a police encounter is protected under the First Amendment. "Speech about how public officials are conducting their duties lies at the core of the First Amendment's protections," said Evan Bernick and Paul Larkin of the conservative Heritage Foundation, "and filming should therefore be given a wide berth."
The real problem, Stanley suggests, is not the law, but cops' willingness - and apparent license - to ignore it.
Aidge Patterson agrees. "The law and the rights people are supposed to have are different from the realities of how things play out. When the cops arrest our people for filming, they get off. But they still get arrested, still get thrown in jail. There's no incentive for the cops not to fuck with us in the first place."
This problem - that cops rarely face any serious consequences for interfering with a civilian's right to film - is one legislators in Colorado are trying to address with a new bill, part of what has been dubbed the "Rebuilding Trust" package of police reform laws moving through their state legislature.
"If it weren't for people like Ramsey Orta, nobody would know Eric Garner's name."
The bill would create a "private right of action" for Coloradans to sue police for $15,000 in civil damages when an officer interferes with them lawfully filming a police encounter, or when an officer destroys or seizes a recording without consent or a court order. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, said the bill is a response to reports of Colorado police forcing citizens to give up their cameras, which Salazar, a civil rights lawyer, says is "unacceptable conduct."
Denis Maes, a public policy director of the Colorado ACLU who testified in support of the bill, said its penalties are designed to "get the police departments to pay attention and train police about what they are and aren't allowed to do."
The bill has received some pushback from local police and prosecutors, who say it's unnecessarily punitive. Anne Marie Jensen, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said the union "does not believe that the people who put their lives at risk every day should have different standards of liability than anyone else in government."
Tom Raynes of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council agreed that officers need to be better trained, but insisted that "accountability through lawsuits is a pretty cynical approach to getting this done."
Maes, who served in the Obama administration before joining the ACLU, sees some irony here. "It's always in the name of law enforcement that we, the public, are subject to rampant surveillance, but somehow when the surveillance shifts to us watching law enforcement, there's an immediate, 'Hey wait a minute, not cool.'"
She says today's surveillance paradigm needs to be flipped. "The public servant should be subject to the public eye. Whereas, we private individuals should be able to maintain our privacy."
A few days after his assault, John Prince filed a complaint with the Providence Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, at the insistence of an acquaintance in the department. Neither of the women the police detained that night were arrested. They elected not to file their own complaints.
A series of hearings followed in November, and in early April, Prince and his lawyer were informed that two of the three officers named in his complaint were found guilty of violating departmental policies. Sgt. Roger Aspinall - who ordered the others to seize Prince's phone - received a one-day, unpaid suspension, a disciplinary letter and mandatory retraining. Francisco Guerra - one of the officers who chased Prince - also got a letter and retraining, but no suspension. Louis Gianfrancesco, the officer who called Prince "Obama," was not found guilty, but will also undergo retraining.
The department was evasive, however, about the reasoning behind these penalties.
Providence Police Department spokeswoman Lindsay Lague told Truthout that because of the "Police Officer's Bill of Rights," she could not confirm the names of the disciplined officers. She admitted that Prince "was chased by an officer in the hallway," and that the "supervisory officer on scene who gave the orders to do so was appropriately disciplined."
However, she said, "It has not been confirmed if an officer did delete the video off of Prince's phone that evening," and neither Prince's injuries nor the tackling allegations were acknowledged by the Internal Affairs Bureau.
It seems worth noting that "he tripped and fell" is something of a go-to explanation for cops accused of brutality. Indeed, former NYPD Detective Bo Dietl recently offered it as a possible explanation for Freddie Gray's severed spinal cord on Fox News.
The internal affairs process doesn't address whether the police department bears any fault for the violations. However, on October 3, 2014, just two weeks after Prince filed his complaint, the department posted a new "community relations" general order stating:
It is the policy of the Providence Police Department to recognize that members of the public have the right to record police officers in public places as long as the actions of those recording do not interfere with the officer's official duties or with the safety of officers or others.
Lague says this policy was already in development when the incident happened.
Prince says the punishments meted out by internal affairs are not enough.
"One day without pay. Retraining. Some kind of ceremony where they sit around in a circle and talk about what they did - it's not enough," he said. "These men ran up in my house, tackled me, took my phone, deleted shit from it and told me 'that's what you get.'"
If Prince's account is true, the officers may be guilty of First and Fourth Amendment rights violations. An Albuquerque officer was charged with felony evidence tampering for deleting a cellphone video of alleged police misconduct. The City of Baltimore settled a civil suit over a deleted video for $250,000.
"They treated me like I didn't matter," Prince said, "and all they got was a slap on the wrist."
Video will not solve the problem of police violence. Nor can it ensure that victims get "justice" - whatever form that may take. Video may have helped inspire massive demonstrations in Baltimore, but it remains to be seen whether charges filed on May 1 against the six Baltimore police officers who arrested Freddie Gray will stick in court.
And yet, as Aidge Patterson says, "If it weren't for people like Ramsey Orta, nobody would know Eric Garner's name." The same can be said for Walter Scott, for Oscar Grant, for Rodney King.
When you film cops, you take away some of their control over the narrative. As Jay Stanley recently said, "Photography is a form of power, and people are loath to give up power, including police officers."
Cameras - particularly those wielded by regular people and not cops - have helped to address what has always been among the greatest impediments to combating police brutality in the United States: the unwillingness of the criminal legal system to acknowledge Black suffering or believe a story of Black victimhood.
It's yet another cruelty of White supremacy that a movement as beautiful and humane as Black Lives Matter must trade in images of brutalized Black bodies in order to legitimize its grievances in the face of White incredulity. It should not be so. But for now, it is.
Thus, we need to make sure people are safe to film the police in their neighborhoods without being harassed, arrested or assaulted. We need more bills like the one in Colorado - which has been sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk - and more severe penalties for cops like Aspinall, Guerra and Gianfrancesco.
Filming cops, Patterson says, is not only about accountability. "It's also about empowering communities to protect themselves.
"We see it as an act of love," he added, "a way of showing up and letting people know, 'Look, I care about you, and I'm here to try and make sure you go home safe tonight.'"
Sam Adler-Bell is a New York-based writer. He researches privacy and surveillance issues at the The Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @SamAdlerBell.
Police Departments Retaliate Against Organized "Cop Watch" Groups Across the US
By Candice Bernd, Truthout | Report
Film the Police!
By Lucy McKeon, Dissent | Op-Ed
Texas Wants to Outlaw Filming the Police
By Kevin Mathews, Care2 | Report
One week after a federal appeals court ruled that citizens possess First Amendment rights to film cops, a police department in New Hampshire agreed to settle with a woman who was arrested on wiretapping charges.
In 2010, Carla Gericke was arrested on wiretapping charges for filming her friend being pulled over by the Weare Police during a traffic stop. When ordered by police to turn over her camera, she refused, and was duly charged for disobeying a police officer, obstructing a government official, and "unlawful interception of oral communications."
According to Massachusetts law, citizens are permitted to record police officers, but only if the cops have been informed that a recording is taking place.
Although she was never brought to trial, Gericke sued, alleging that her arrest amounted to “retaliatory prosecution in breach of her constitutional rights.”
The Weare police department settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay Gericke $57,000. Meanwhile, her attorney expressed confidence that the landmark case would make police retaliation against videographers “a thing of the past.”
"Unfortunately, sometimes, the only thing that changes entrenched behaviors is if it becomes too costly to continue those behaviors," attorney Seth Hipple said. “This settlement helps to make it clear that government agencies that choose to retaliate against videographers will pay for their retaliation in dollars and cents. We are confident that this settlement will help to make arrests of videographers a thing of the past."
Gericke’s case was permitted to proceed after the First US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled she was “exercising a clearly established First Amendment right when she attempted to film the traffic stop in the absence of a police order to stop filming or leave the area."
"It is clearly established in this circuit that police officers cannot, consistently with the Constitution, prosecute citizens for violating wiretapping laws when they peacefully record a police officer performing his or her official duties in a public area," the appeals court said.
In an ironic footnote to the case, Gericke never actually succeeded in videoing her friend’s run-in with the police as her camera failed to work. Nevertheless, the court still ruled the video malfunction “irrelevant” as it ruled in her favor.
"We agree that Gericke's First Amendment right does not depend on whether her attempt to videotape was frustrated by a technical malfunction. There is no dispute that she took out the camera in order to record the traffic stop."
Americans have First Amendment right to film police, US appeals court rules
May 29, 2014
A federal appeals court has ruled that Americans have the right to videotape police officers in public, thereby allowing a court case brought against New Hampshire police to progress.
Carla Gericke was arrested in 2010 for videotaping members of the Weare Police Department who pulled over her friend during a traffic stop. Her video camera malfunctioned, however, and she failed to record evidence of the incident.
Nevertheless, Gericke was arrested for disobeying a police officer, obstructing a government official, and "unlawful interception of oral communications," the court said. Concerning her failed efforts to record the incident, the court noted that the malfunction was irrelevant: "We agree that Gericke's First Amendment right does not depend on whether her attempt to videotape was frustrated by a technical malfunction. There is no dispute that she took out the camera in order to record the traffic stop."
Although Carla Gericke was never brought to trial, she subsequently sued the Town of Weare, its police department, and the officers who arrested and charged her, alleging in pertinent part that the “wiretapping charge constituted retaliatory prosecution in violation of her First Amendment rights,”according to the appeal statement.
The police officers involved in her arrest argued they should be immune from a lawsuit.
The First US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Gericke "was exercising a clearly established First Amendment right when she attempted to film the traffic stop in the absence of a police order to stop filming or leave the area."
"It is clearly established in this circuit that police officers cannot, consistently with the Constitution, prosecute citizens for violating wiretapping laws when they peacefully record a police officer performing his or her official duties in a public area," the appeals court said.
The First Circuit covers Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island and sent the case back to a lower court for trial.
The ruling allows her lawsuit to proceed.
The decision comes amid a flurry of court cases involving citizens attempting to express their First Amendment rights by filming their encounters with law enforcement officers, many of whom say the recordings interfere with their work, to say nothing of the possibility that a camera may be mistaken for a weapon.
Earlier this month, a Massachusetts woman was charged with using a concealed mobile phone allegedly in violation of state wiretapping regulations to audio-record her own arrest.
According to Massachusetts law, citizens are permitted to record police officers in public, but only if the police have been informed that a recording is taking place.
Student Arrested for Filming NYPD Precinct Wins $15,000 Settlement
February 17, 2014
By Tom Isler -- Docs and The Law
New York City will pay $15,000 to settle a lawsuit by a documentary filmmaker who was arrested in April of 2013 for filming the exterior of the NYPD’s 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn.
Justin Thomas, then a 29-year-old student in the social documentary program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, was filming the precinct for his thesis film when a police officer demanded that he stop recording. When Thomas refused and asserted that he had a right to film the police station, the officer arrested him and confiscated a video card from his camera. Thomas was handcuffed and spent approximately two hours in custody. (The incident occurred on April 19, 2013, four days after the Boston Marathon bombing.) All charges against Thomas were dropped.
A friend of Thomas captured the arrest on film, which was posted on YouTube (below). The officer had taken only one of the camera’s two video cards, so Thomas retained a copy of the footage. Thomas appears at the 1:47 mark. The audio cuts in and out throughout the video. Thomas’s lawyers posted the video with the following explanation: “Low quality audio due to directional mike used in close quarters.”
On November 6, 2013, Thomas filed a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in which he alleged that the arrest violated his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Read the complaint.) The complaint also alleged that the NYPD has a policy or practice of “arresting individuals in retaliation for filming government buildings or filming the conduct of government actors, particularly police officers.” The complaint includes nine other instances in which the NYPD arrested individuals who were filming or photographing police activity. While direct infringements of First Amendment rights are actionable through Section 1983, Thomas also asserted that the police retaliated against him for exercising his free speech and press rights – the theory goes that the police retaliated against Thomas because they did not want him to film the police station – which itself could be actionable under Section 1983.
“One of the things that we’ve seen over the years is that the NYPD does not respect the rights of journalists and documentarians,” David B. Rankin, Thomas’s attorney, said in a statement to the press recorded by the the New York Daily News. (Read Rankin’s press release about the suit.)
The lawsuit was reported settled and dismissed on February 5, 2014. Rankin confirmed the settlement.
Accepting Thomas’s factual allegations as true, the arrest clearly violated Thomas’s First Amendment rights. Police are free to request that filmmakers stop recording, but taking affirmative steps to prevent filming, down to seizing memory cards, often will abridge freedom of the press or the exercise of free speech. In this case, Thomas asserts that he was lawfully present in a public space and had a right to photograph the building, which was in plain view. He recorded the images in a journalistic capacity as a filmmaker making a documentary about police abuse. (More on Thomas’s film below.) Thomas was not interfering with any legitimate law enforcement activity. Absent a reasonable, good-faith belief that the camera’s memory card contained evidence of a crime, the police probably could not have confiscated the card without a warrant, although the law is unsettled whether the police could have scrutinized the contents of the card in conjunction with an arrest without a warrant.
Still, police in different states use a number of different legal theories to justify arrests of individuals and journalists recording police activity. In some states, police have arrested videographers under wiretapping statutes, which often require the consent of the people being recorded. (In Pennsylvania, courts have refused to extend state wiretapping statutes to recordings of police exercising their official authority in public.) In other instances, police have used more general criminal statutes such as “obstructing an investigation,” “interfering” with an officer, or “obstructing” a street to justify arrests. In many cases, charges are dropped or dismissed, but the arrests probably have a deterrent effect on filmmakers who do not want to disobey police orders. (For a thoughtful analysis of these issues, along with citations to examples, see Seth F. Kreimer, Pervasive Image Capture and the First Amendment: Memory, Discourse, and the Right to Record, 159 U. Pa. L. Rev. 335, 358-66 (2011).)
Thomas’s hour-long thesis film, “Truth Through a Lens” (link: Facebook page), tells the story of activist Dennis Flores, who himself has been documenting police abuse for more than a decade. In Thomas’s film, Flores recounts that he won a $270,000 settlement stemming from a police assault. See 10 minutes of the film on Vimeo.com.
Thomas’s film will screen at the Workers Unite! Film Festival in New York City in May.
Thomas was born in the Bronx and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated from SUNY Purchase in 2007 and has produced film and television about music and other performance arts, according to his bio on Vimeo.com.
Attaching video cams to the Police is foolish...
Walter Scott Shooting Highlights Cops’ Contempt for the Right to Record Police
The illegal harassment of camera-carrying bystanders needs to stop
by Jacob Sullum -- Reason April 15, 2015
Even before it became clear that Feidin Santana was witnessing what local authorities now describe as a murder, it took guts for him to record the police encounter that ended in Walter Scott's death. Santana, who was walking to work at a barbershop in North Charleston, South Carolina, the day before Easter, risked illegal retaliation by camera-shy cops the moment he stopped talking on his smartphone and started using it to capture Scott's interaction with patrolman Michael Slager.
Although the First Amendment right to record the police as they perform their duties in public is well established, cops often violate that right by ordering people to turn off their cameras, confiscating their cellphones, or arresting them on trumped-up charges. The shooting of Walter Scott, which last week led to Slager's arrest thanks to the details revealed by Santana's video, illustrates both the prevalence of this contempt for constitutional rights and the importance of counteracting it.
After Scott fell to the ground, struck by five of the eight rounds that Slager fired at him as he fled a traffic stop, Santana continued recording. "One of the officers told me to stop," Santana told CNN. "It was because I say to them that what they did, it was an abuse, and I witnessed everything."
The New York Times reports that when Scott's older brother, Anthony, arrived at the crime scene and took pictures of the body, three officers "surrounded him, telling him to turn over his phone." He gave it to them. "Hours later," the Times says, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers "arrived, returned Mr. Scott's phone and offered his condolences."
As Driggers seemed to recognize, there is no legal basis for such interference with camera-carrying bystanders. The right to record police has been explicitly upheld by at least four federal appeals courts—in the 1st, 7th, 9th, and 11th circuits—and implicitly recognized by others.
Federal judges outside of those four circuits have ruled that the right to record flows logically from the First Amendment right to gather information and that it applies equally to everyone, not just credentialed journalists. Big-city police chiefs take it for granted that "members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions," as a 2014 NYPD memo put it, and that "a bystander has the same right to take photographs or make recordings as a member of the media," as Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier informed her officers in 2012.
The behavior of North Charleston police after the shooting of Walter Scott suggests why such memos are necessary. So do the actions of the officers who arrested Austin, Texas, activist Antonio Buehler three times in 2012 for daring to record police encounters.
Last July, responding to a lawsuit filed by Buehler, a federal judge ruled that the right he was exercising is well enough established that police cannot rely on qualified immunity to escape liability for violating it. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Lane cited "a robust consensus of circuit courts" that "the First Amendment encompasses a right to record public officials as they perform their official duties."
Even the threat of personal liability may not be enough to deter cops from harassing people who record them, since taxpayers typically pick up the tab when cities settle lawsuits arising from such incidents. Last year, for instance, New York City paid $125,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Brooklyn resident Dick George, who said police roughed him up and arrested him for disorderly conduct after he recorded a stop-and-frisk encounter in 2012.
According to George's complaint, one of the cops said, "Now we are going to give you what you deserve for meddling in our business, and when we finish with you, you can sue the city for $5 million and get rich. We don't care."
Anthony Scott encountered a similar attitude when the cops took his cellphone. "It was eerie how they were acting," he told the Times. "They were cocky."
BY REEVES WIEDEMAN
Among the chants and Twitter hashtags radiating from Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York—“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe”—an improvisation on N.W.A.’s anti-cop rap lyric has been one of the most contemporary. “Film the police,” protesters declared after a smartphone caught police locking Eric Garner, a Staten Island man, in a lethal chokehold.
In Ferguson, there is no question that a police officer’s bullets ended Michael Brown’s life, but the lack of video documentation of the shooting has left the details in dispute. And so, as protests raged, a group of New Yorkers met at a library in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to learn the best practices for capturing police encounters on camera. The workshop was being held by Peoples’ Justice, a police-accountability group that hopes to “spread the culture of cop-watching,” a tactic they trace to the Black Panthers. “Huey Newton would hit the streets with a law book and a shotgun,” Aidge Patterson, a Peoples’ Justice coördinator who was leading the seminar, said. “We’re shooting with a camera.”
Patterson wore a turquoise cap flipped backward and a T-shirt adorned with an assault rifle discharging a rose. A poster behind him showed an officer beating a man with a nightstick while a well-equipped camera crew documented the incident. The aspiring filmmakers in attendance included two fourteen-year-old boys, who’d been dragged to the meeting by a mentor from a program for at-risk youths; Keeshan Harley, a nineteen-year-old in a Shepard Fairey “OBEY” T-shirt, who wants to start a cop watch in Crown Heights; and an older man in Capri pants. “I’m here because I’ve realized electronics cannot be invalidated,” Kendra Brewster, a social psychologist, said. It had become clear, she added, that human beings could be.
Patterson began the workshop with a civics quiz. “True or false,” he said. “If you are stopped or arrested, it’s best to answer all the cop’s questions.”
“When I watch ‘Law & Order,’ they say don’t talk to the cops unless you got a lawyer,” Derek, one of the teens, said.
“Right!” Patterson said. “I’m glad they’re dropping some actual knowledge there.” Derek recalled a recent encounter with the police. “I came from a party with my friends, and some cops—they was D.’s, detectives—hopped out on us and were, like, ‘Get on the wall,’ ” he said. He wondered if the police could legally look through his pockets.
“That’s a search,” Patterson said, drawing a distinction between the city’s stop-and-frisk practice and a search, which requires probable cause.
“But what if they keep going?” Derek said. “Because some cops just don’t care.”
That, Patterson said, was where the cameras came in. Filming the police in public is a federal right, and the N.Y.P.D. recently sent out a memo reminding officers of that fact. (The department has also considered outfitting officers with their own lapel cameras.) In addition to promoting spontaneous cop-watching, Peoples’ Justice patrols neighborhoods with a police scanner and two film crews—one to capture incidents up close, the other to get wide-angle shots.
Patterson pulled out a small camcorder and a diagram with Lego characters showing proper cop-watching formation. The Grim Reaper held one camera; Wonder Woman had a walkie-talkie; Wolverine was in charge of talking to the police. The cameraman should stand a few feet away from the cops, Patterson said, both to frame the shot—“If you focus on the face, the police might kick them in the leg”—and because “we are not in the business of getting our asses kicked.” He discouraged narration, to avoid talking over incriminating dialogue, and recommended a smartphone app, developed by a lawyer in Chicago, that automatically uploads footage to the Web before an officer has a chance to delete it. If the cops get upset about the raised camera, Patterson suggested lowering it to your hip. “But try to keep filming,” he said.
Patterson asked for volunteers to conduct a role-playing exercise. He and another experienced cop-watcher played the authorities, while Derek played the victim and his mentor, Dashamelle Robinson, took the camera. “Action!” Patterson shouted, as he pushed Derek against a wall. Robinson kept her eyes trained on the viewfinder, while Harley, charged with keeping peace with the police, called out, “I’m exercising my right to observe!” Afterward, worried about how he would react on the street, he said, “I got emotional. This is like a test.”
As the group debriefed, Robinson asked Patterson if it might be better, in certain situations, to put the camera down and intervene. “I’ve heard many folks say, ‘If somebody had just jumped in there to push those cops off, maybe Eric Garner would be alive today,’ ” Patterson said. “But we don’t know what would have happened. Maybe they would have backed off. Maybe there would be two dead people.” He paused. “Cop-watching is about letting each other know: ‘I care about you. I got your back.’ Just so long as we’re there.” ♦
a smartphone app that automatically uploads footage
to the Web before an officer
has a chance to delete it
What Good Is a Video You Can't See?
Film the police; Don’t buy them cameras
BY OWEN SILVERMAN ANDREWS ·
AUGUST 30, 2014
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown—a black teenager—by Darren Wilson, a white on-duty police officer in Ferguson, MO, many social activists and reformers have honed in on equipping police with cameras as a preventative solution.
I first want to say that if folks, especially in the black community, will feel safer being policed by cops with cameras, then I understand and readily admit that my privilege and general life experience may be influencing my perspective. That said, I think it’s important to take a close look at this proposed solution, especially given that there are other options competing for urgency.
It’s important to point out that police departments have been equipping themselves with mounted car and body cameras before Ferguson and without the prodding of social reformers. The entire Rialto, CA Police Department has been outfitted with body-mounted cameras, and departments in New Carrollton and Largo, MD are doing limited trial runs. According to a Wall Street Journal article, use of force by Rialto PD declined 60 percent and citizen complaints against police declined 88 percent the year after the camera policy was rolled out.
The stock price of Taser International Inc. is listed later in the article, and many WSJ readers are watching what’s happening in Ferguson with a keen eye for investment opportunities. If all, or at least some, of this social unrest can be channeled into police departments being “forced” into purchasing body-mounted cameras, then corporations and investors will make handsome profits, already bloated police budgets will swell further, and politicians can appease angry constituents with tangible legislation.
It would be wrong, however, to ignore the stats coming out of places like Rialto. Although we don’t have access to the data, and so can’t know if it’s been manipulated, what other parallel policies were put in place during the same time period, or how local dynamics within the community shape relations with the police, let’s take these numbers at face value. The use of force dropping by 60 percent is good.
Citizen complaints against police dropping by 88 percent, though more ambiguous, is also probably a good thing. But it’s important to ask why, why did this likely occur? The thinking goes that once both parties in a policing situation are being observed by a third party, then the behavior of both the police and the civilians will improve. The third-party observer theory has been confirmed by psychological research.
And yet there is nothing to suggest that people filming police with our own cameras would not have the same effect (acknowledging that many of the most at risk people, such as the houseless, often to not have cellphone cameras). Why dump money at police departments to purchase a tool from corporations that many of us already possess? Why not crowd source our own videos of police behavior? Copblock.org already has endorsed a number of apps that do just that.
Third party observers, also known as third party punishers, also cut both ways. If police are less aggressive on camera, so too are the rest of us. As Chief Rice of the New Carrolton Police Department points out, “People tend to behave better when they are on video. We’re not getting as much combativeness from people. In that respect, [the body-mounted cameras] have worked very well.”
Resistance to police, who remain an occupying force, with or without cameras, apparently diminishes when civilians are recorded.
So we’re talking about more complacency on the part of the community as police officers continue their structurally violent work, even if they may be more hesitant to use physical violence (which of course shouldn’t be minimized). We’re also talking about less aggressive civil disobedience and less participation by at-risk folks, because the likelihood of getting caught will increase. A seemingly logical police accountability reform like body-mounted cameras could actually make the activism integral to deep social justice reform more inaccessible and vulnerable to retaliation.
Further, these cameras cost New Carrollton $600 a pop and Laurel $2,000 each. Taser International Inc, which outfitted the Rialto PD, has driven the price down to $300-$400 per camera. To outfit the police in Baltimore, MD, where I live, it would cost about $1,400,000 upfront ($350 x 4,000, the number of officers in the Baltimore Police Department), plus the significant yearly costs of managing all that data.
That’s a quick way to swell the budget of the most reactionary element of local government and fatten the wallets of camera vendors who are often part of the larger military-industrial complex, all with the blessing of the ACLU and many social activists.
We were told the same story when Taser first introduced its eponymous product, or when dashboard cameras were installed in police cruisers in the 1990s. We haven’t seen an end to police brutality due to these technological upgrades, and we shouldn’t expect to if body-mounted cameras become standardized.
Beyond increased surveillance and swollen police department budgets, there is a serious trust issue. Police have been planting evidence as long as there have been police. And cops have been protecting cops who plant evidence since day one. There’s no reason why that trend would not extend to tampering with footage, or using it to arrest people for a “crime” police would not have been aware of otherwise.
Technology is a tool, a means, but if the ends of the people using that technology haven’t changed, why should we expect their behavior to just because they’re using cameras now? Besides, they can just turn the cameras off, like they did when tear gassed and shot us with rubber bullets in Oakland during Occupy, or when a New Orleans Police Officer Lewis shot Armand Bennet on August 15th.
Lastly, Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who oversees a PD that frequently resorts to the use of deadly force, made a valid point when asked about police cameras. She raised the situation of police entering the home of a domestic or sexual abuse survivor. That person’s right to privacy is violated in a new and troubling way when rolling cameras are introduced without consent.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:
Apart from all this, I don’t mean to suggest that cameras can’t be one of many demands being pushed in this critical moment, but that it’s problematic for this demand to take central stage. Since numerous Police Departments already were implementing this policy on their own without popular pressure, the urgency of this demand seems muted compared to others.
My thinking is we should focus on the immediate demand of prosecution and conviction of Wilson for murder, the medium-term goal of lowering the threshold for prosecuting on-duty officers (currently, if an officer acts in a way another average officer would have acted, they cannot be prosecuted, a legal protection know as qualified immunity), and the long-term community building work (including the proliferation of responsible third party punishers) that will make the excuses police enlist to justify the use of force seem even more absurd to even more people.
Convicting Officer Wilson will be difficult, though not impossible, more so because the grand jury empanelled by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch is 75 percent white. Weakening qualified immunity, though also difficult, will increase police officers’ legal responsibility for their actions. And by doing the community building work in our own communities, specifically developing environments where responsible third party punishers are the norm, we simultaneously address issues of crime and policing.
Film the police, but don’t buy them new cameras.
44 Hours in a Baltimore Jail for Filming the Police
Along with hundreds of others, Geremy Faulkner was swept up in one of the haphazard mass arrests that are overwhelming the courts.
Geremy Faulkner, who turned 18 in February, was videotaping police interaction with looters and bystanders last Monday afternoon at Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall when he was arrested along with 250 others in the city that day. He spent the next 44 hours in jail, crammed in a small holding cell with as many as twelve men with no beds, no blankets, no pillows, intermittent water (the pipes spewed brown water that the guards suggested they avoid drinking), inadequate food, and no access to an attorney.
He was never charged with a crime.
“I looked on the news and saw [the looting] was directly across from me,” he said, explaining how he came to be arrested. He lives right across the street from the mall and saw that protesters and looters were gathering there. The Mondawmin Mall sits near Frederick Douglass High School and is also a transportation hub that sees almost 1,000 students pass through on their way home from school each day as they switch buses, hop on subways, or go to the mall after school.
When social media announced that there would be looting at the mall, police in riot gear descended to close off roads and shut down buses and subways. Hundreds of students were stranded in the area and tension escalated. “I wanted to know what was going on and thought, the more documentation the better, because this not okay,” Faulkner said. “If an officer would in any way … have reacted to the crowd I was worried it would escalate.… I was taking video on Snapchat.”
Faulkner ended up in an alley recording a police chase; eight officers ran after a kid who appeared to have been looting in the mall. The kid scaled a fence and got away, but Faulkner, who had been standing next to some police officers in the alley for a while, simply stepped back out of the way, he said. “I’m continuing to take video,” he said. “I’m not hindering them. I just moved to the side and put my hands in air and expected them to run past me. But one of the guys in riot gear kicks me in legs. ‘You wanna kill cops?’ he says and he hits me. Then he hits me again. I said ‘What’s your name?’ He says, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” Faulkner said the officer threw him to the ground, put his knee into his back, cuffed him, and stepped on his hand to kick his phone out of the way sending it skittering into the bushes. Faulkner was put into a police van with seven others and taken to Central Booking.
Faulkner, who graduated from Baltimore’s Career Academy High School in January, works part-time at Panera’s and goes to a local community college. He has never been arrested. If he is guilty, it is most likely for the “crime” of being a risk-taking black teen who runs toward trouble for a closer look rather than away from it.
I know, because he is my son’s best friend and had just left our house before being swept up by the police on Monday.
Geremy Faulkner is not alone. Baltimore police have swept up hundreds of people in the last week and sent them to jail, where they’ve been languishing for days in a legal limbo. Overwhelmed courts have struggled to keep pace, and the public defenders office has shifted into hyperdrive to interview those arrested, find out why they are charged, and assign representation.
Many, like Faulkner, have never been charged, because police, in their rush to return to the streets, neglected to spend the necessary few minutes filling out the forms that explain why they were arrested in the first place. Faulkner’s court record, for example, has no information. The name of the officer who arrested him is missing. The box to check why he was arrested was never filled out. His gender, race, date of birth, and address—all standard information—are absent. According to public defenders appointed to represent most of those arrested on
Monday, 111 lacked any statement of “probable cause” for their arrest.
Baltimore’s public defenders filed 82 writs of habeas corpus in a single day on Wednesday, arguing that their defendants were being held illegally without being charged—a monumental feat of interviews, paperwork and court appearances that required calling in reinforcements. Forty public defenders from surrounding counties and private attorneys working pro bono stepped in to assist them with the 230 cases. Ultimately, 101 people were released from jail that day, including Faulkner. “There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from other attorneys,” said Natalie Finegar, deputy district public defender. “It’s tremendous resource suck for the PD, but we are not going to cave.”
Indeed, late on Friday afternoon, on the fourth floor of the courthouse in Judge Charles Peters’s cramped chambers, several public defenders argued on behalf of three clients. The three African-American men sat quietly in jumpsuits as the attorneys insisted that the men had not been charged in a timely manner.
The men had been arrested on April 27—along with many others. According to David Walsh-Little, chief attorney in the Felony Trial Division, they were not charged by a commissioner within 24 hours as prescribed by Maryland’s Code of Judicial Conduct. For that reason, he said, they should be released.
Judge Peters acknowledged that the men had not been charged within 24 hours, but he pointed out that they had seen a commissioner within that time frame. Documents indicated that a commissioner had called the men in to advise them of their right to an attorney. “[It] says nothing else has to happen besides going in front of a judicial officer,” Peters said, consulting the wording of the code.
Walsh-Little argued that it was clearly the intent of the law that the “judicial officer” charge the person and set bail or the rule was pointless. “[They] could comply with the law by bringing the prisoner down and saying, ‘Would you like a ham sandwich?’” he asked, incredulous.
Making matters worse, Maryland’s newly elected Republican governor, Larry Hogan, issued an executive order on April 29 that suspended the 24-hour rule and instead gave the courts 48 hours to bring charges against those jailed. While it is not clear whether Hogan even has the power to intervene in this manner, many detainees were edging close to the 48-hour deadline on Wednesday when, still never charged with a crime, 101 were finally released.
The three men in Judge Peters’s courtroom were not so lucky. These men had been charged, but not within the 24-hour period. As the clock inched toward 5 on this Friday afternoon, the judge adjourned the court, leaving the men in jail for the weekend. “Oh, God, man!” shouted one of them, who was quickly shushed by his lawyer.
Finegar, whose sentiments are echoed by several Baltimore public defenders, worries that such roughshod disregard of defendants’ legal rights only reinforces residents’ belief that justice will not be served. She also thinks the courts should have anticipated the slew of cases from these police sweeps and acted accordingly.
“As I was watching the rioting on TV, I’m thinking I’ve got to be ready to mobilize now,” says Finegar. “Why can’t the rest of the system do that?”
Other public defenders have pointed out that police officers who have desk jobs due to medical reasons, etc., could be enlisted to do the necessary paperwork. The courts could also stay open longer in order to process people.
“If you think the arrest is valid, why would you want to jeopardize it by not doing the paperwork?” asks Finegar.
As I sat talking to Geremy Faulkner on my back porch three days after he was released, the sirens that form an aural backdrop to life in Baltimore these days mingled with the sound of an ice cream truck whining a rendition of “Pop! Goes the Weasel.”
Geremy said his arrest felt random.
“Originally, I never really wanted to a part of any of this,” he said, referring to the Freddie Gray protests and rioting. “I was staying home, not going out, listening and seeing things on TV. But this time, because it was so close [to my house] I thought there was something I could do.”
Shortly after he was arrested while videotaping events at Mondawmin Mall, Geremy briefly saw a commissioner who informed him that if he was indigent, he qualified for a public defender. Geremy signed a paper requesting one. “Then they told us they were going to charge us with disorderly conduct,” he said, but explained that the arresting officer had only filled out half of the necessary form before leaving to go back out onto the streets.
After that, he sat in jail for two days wondering what would happen to him. He said he was hungry and after about a day, they fed him. “I took my first bite of a sweaty bologna and cheese sandwich and threw up in the toilet,” he said. “From there on I didn’t eat [any of the sandwiches].” Geremy said some people made small piles of the stale bread on top of their shoes and used them for pillows.
He had some Froot Loops, which he described as a “delicacy” because he was one of the few to score cereal and “they told us that booking was slowly running out of food.”
Geremy’s cellphone rang in the middle of our interview, and I found myself wondering how this teen who was never without his phone survived two days without it.
“We pretty much just talked,” he said. People came and went from the cell—though the seven he was arrested with more or less bonded over the duration. There was a man who worked for a security firm at Ft. Mead, a man from Harlem and a transgendered woman. “We had pretty long, in depth conversations,” he said, with people who had interesting stories to tell. “It was something to pass the time.”
And he thought about Freddie Gray. “I definitely think that something happened in that paddy wagon between when they picked him up and dropped him off. Things were not done right in situations like that,” he said, adding that he asked some of the guards there what they thought happened. “They said, ‘It is what it is.’” This puzzled Geremy. “This is all people with the same skin color as me,” he said, “because they think their job protects them. But if they hadn’t been in uniform, they could have been in the same boat as us.”
While Geremy was sitting in his cell worrying that he’d been forgotten, his foster mother, Patricia Brown, and many other parents were reaching out for legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, the public defender’s office, and a local attorney, Ginger Robinson, who agreed to work pro bono on his behalf. Robinson eventually got in to see him, and the public defenders were successful in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. He was released without being charged, 44 hours after his arrest—just under the 48-hour extension the governor ordered.
“I was really happy when they called my name, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet,” Geremy said. “I was still worrying about the others in my cell. Since we were all arrested together, it seemed only right that they got out.” He hung out waiting for 20 minutes, and they soon followed—thanks to the same mass habeas writs filed by the public defender’s office.
The next day, Geremy returned to the Mondawmin Mall to hunt for his cellphone. He found it under a bush where the police had kicked it—four days earlier.
Film the Police
A new app makes it easier.
Last month, video footage emerged that appeared to show something illegal: A U.S. marshal approached a woman who was filming him on duty, snatched her smartphone, and smashed it on the ground.
That incident only became news because someone else was filming the encounter. But not every bystander filming a police encounter can have a backup. What should a person do when there's no one else on the scene?
A new app tries to answer this question by offering, in effect, a different kind of backup. Called Mobile Justice CA, the app uploads all video footage as it’s being captured to servers owned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Even if the phone is destroyed, the video will survive.
The app was co-released Friday by the ACLU of Southern California and the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and it’s available now for iOS and Android devices.
Mobile Justice CA does more than automatically upload video. It includes a “witness” button, which a user can press to notify other app users within a three-mile radius that they are observing a police interaction. It also lets users file written reports with a local ACLU office and includes versions of the ACLU’s “Know Your Rights” guides for photographers, protesters, and citizens.
California isn’t the first state to get an app like this. Missouri’s ACLU chapter released similar software during protests in Ferguson last year, and a New York-specific app focused on stop-and-frisk has been out since 2012.
The ACLU and the Ella Baker Center have found fast success with their version, though: Since its release on Friday, Mobile Justice CA has been downloaded almost 40,000 times. (New York’s “Stop and Frisk Watch” has been downloaded about 30,000 since its release in 2012.)
Patrisse Cullors, director of the truth and reinvestment campaign at the Ella Baker Center and one of three co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, told me that the app is only one of several forthcoming measures meant to serve as a check on law enforcement.
'Thank God for Cellphone Video Cameras'
Within a year, Cullors told me, the Center plans to debut a “web-based platform” that will help communities track behaviors—both positive and negative—among law-enforcement agencies and individual police officers. Cullors described the platform as “a Facebook for challenging criminalization in your community.”
The platform is intended to connect to Mobile Justice CA’s reporting feature, and to help organizers compare trends across departments. It will also allow local community members to track their own law enforcement agencies and to note which officers seem to regularly abuse residents, enabling the Center to compare patterns of abuse between departments.
“Oftentimes, communities know their local law enforcement really well,” said Cullors.
For now, there’s the app. Video uploaded to ACLU servers will be reviewed by the organization’s lawyers, but it will still belong to the person who captured it.
Body cameras have been hailed as a solution to police brutality, and in that they’ve proven popular but fraught: They improve officer accountability while functioning as one more surveillance tool in communities often already riddled with them. Most of the videos that have ignited recent protests and reforms around the country, meanwhile, have been shot by bystanders, not officers themselves.
It’s always easy to spend more money on police departments, even in the name of oversight. Mobile Justice CA is something different. It builds a more stable technological infrastructure for bystander-provided video—a potentially less intrusive form of surveillance when used on citizens, and a seemingly more powerful one when used on cops
Film The Police Portland is a grassroots, volunteer-run organization that focuses on police accountability through filming police encounters in the community.
We intend to achieve our goals by growing our numbers of video activists so we can cover the entire downtown area of Portland Oregon!
"A Keg of Powder"
Like Clockwork, Arbitrator Rules Against Firing of Cop Who Killed Aaron Campbell
By Denis C. Theriault @theriaultpdx
FOR THE FOURTH time in nearly 20 years—maintaining a perfect record for the controversial Portland Police Association (PPA), but sparking new warnings about long simmering community outrage—a Portland police officer fired for the inappropriate use of deadly force has been told he ought to have his old job back.
Police Departments Retaliate Against Organized "Cop Watch" Groups Across the US
By Candice Bernd, Truthout | Report
When communities attempt to police the police, they often get, well... policed.
In several states, organized groups that use police scanners and knowledge of checkpoints to collectively monitor police activities by legally and peacefully filming cops on duty have said they've experienced retaliation, including unjustified detainment and arrests as well as police intimidation.
The groups operate under many decentralized organizations, most notably CopWatch and Cop Block, and have proliferated across the United States in the last decade - and especially in the aftermath of the events that continue to unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, after officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown.
Many such groups have begun proactively patrolling their communities with cameras at various times during the week, rather than reactively turning on their cameras when police enter into their neighborhoods or when they happen to be around police activity.
Across the nation, local police departments are responding to organized cop watching patrols by targeting perceived leaders, making arrests, threatening arrests, yanking cameras out of hands and even labeling particular groups "domestic extremist" organizations and part of the sovereign citizens movement - the activities of which the FBI classifies as domestic terrorism.
Courts across the nation at all levels have upheld the right to film police activity. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and photographer's assocications have taken many similar incidents to court, consistently winning cases over the years. The Supreme Court has ruled police can't search an individual's cellphone data without a warrant. Police also can't legally delete an individual's photos or video images under any circumstances.
"Yet, a continuing stream of these incidents (often driven by police who have been fed 'nonsense' about links between photography and terrorism) makes it clear that the problem is not going away," writes Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
Sources who have participated in various organized cop watching groups in cities such as New York; Chicago; Cleveland; Las Vegas; Oakland; Arlington, Texas; Austin and lastly Ferguson, Missouri, told Truthout they have experienced a range of police intimidation tactics, some of which have been caught on film. Cop watchers told Truthout they have been arrested in several states, including Texas, New York, Ohio and California in retaliation for their filming activity.
More recently, in September, three cop watchers were arrested while monitoring police activity during a traffic stop in Arlington, Texas. A group of about 20 people, a few of them associated with the Tarrant County Peaceful Streets Project, gathered at the intersection of South Cooper Street and Lynda Lane during a Saturday night on September 6 to film police as they conducted a traffic stop. A video of what happened next was posted at YouTube.
Arlington police charged Janie Lucero, her husband, Kory Watkins, and Joseph Tye with interference of public duties. Lucero and Watkins were charged with obstructing a highway while Tye was arrested on charges of refusing to identify himself.
Arlington police have defended the arrests of the three cop watchers, but the watchers say they weren't interfering with police work, and were told to move 150 feet away from the officers - around the corner of a building where they couldn't film the officers.
"When we first started [cop watching, the police] seemed kind of bothered a little bit," Watkins told Truthout. "There was a change somewhere where [the police] started becoming a little bit more offended, and we started having more cop watchers so I guess they felt like they needed to start bringing more officers to traffic stops."
On the night of Watkin's arrest, his group had previously monitored two other traffic stops without any confrontation with Arlington police officers before the incident that led to the arrests.
Sometimes, though, retaliation against cop watching groups goes far beyond arresting cop watchers on patrol.
Cops Label Cop Watch Groups Domestic Terrorists
On New Year's Day in 2012, Antonio Buehler, a West Point graduate and former military officer, witnessed two Austin police officers assaulting a woman. He pulled out his phone.
As he began photographing the officers and asking questions about their activities, the cops assaulted and arrested him. He was charged with spitting in a cop's face - a felony crime.
However, two witness videos of the incident surfaced and neither of them showed that Buehler spit in Officer Patrick Oborski's face. A grand jury was finally convened in March 2013 and concluded there was not enough evidence to indict Buehler on any of the crimes he was charged with.
A few months after the New Year's Day incident, Buehler and other Austin-based activists started the Peaceful Streets Project (PSP), an all-volunteer organization dedicated to stopping police abuse. The group has held "Know Your Rights" trainings and a Police Accountability Summit. The group also regularly organizes cop watch patrols in Austin.
Since the PSP was launched, the movement has grown, with local chapters popping up in other cities and states across the United States, including Texas' Tarrant County chapter, which the three cop watchers arrested in Arlington were affiliated with.
But as the Peaceful Streets movement spread, police retaliation against the groups, and particularly Buehler himself, also escalated.
"[The Austin Police Department (APD)] sees us as a threat primarily because we shine a spotlight on their crimes," Buehler said.
The group recently obtained documents from the APD through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that reveal Austin police colluded to arrest Buehler and other cop watchers affiliated with the Peaceful Streets Project. Since the New Year's Day incident, Buehler has been arrested three more times by APD officers. At least four other members of PSP have been arrested on charges of interference or failing to identify themselves during their cop watching activities.
The emails indicate APD officers monitored Buehler's social media posts and attempted to justify arresting him for another felony crime of online impersonation over an obviously satirical post he made on Facebook, as well as reveal that some APD officers coordinated efforts to stop PSP members' legal and peaceful activities, even suggesting reaching out to the District Attorney's office to see if anything could be done to incarcerate members of the group.
Another internal email from APD senior officer Justin Berry identifies PSP as a "domestic extremist" organization. Berry writes that he believes police accountability groups including PSP, CopWatch and Cop Block are part of a "national domestic extremism trend." He believes he found "mirror warning signs" in "FBI intel." Berry makes a strange attempt to lump police accountability activists and the hacker-collective Anonymous in with sovereign citizens groups as a collective revolutionary movement.
"Sovereign citizens" groups generally believe federal, state and local governments are illegitimate and operate illegally. Some self-described sovereign citizens create fake license plates, identification and forms of currency to circumvent official government institutions. The FBI classifies the activities of sovereign citizens groups as domestic terrorism, considering the groups a growing "domestic threat" to law enforcement.
Buehler told Truthout the APD is working with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fusion center to attempt to identify PSP as a sovereign citizens group to associate its members with domestic terrorism with state and federal authorities. DHS fusion centers are designed to gather, analyze and promote the sharing of intelligence information between federal and state agencies.
"They have spent a fair amount of resources tracking us, spying on us and infiltrating our group, and we are just peaceful activists who are demanding accountability for the police," Buehler told Truthout. "They have absolutely no evidence that we've engaged in any criminal activity or that we've tried to engage in criminal activity."
APD officials did not respond to a request for comment.
"They've pushed us; they've assaulted us for filming them; they've used their horses against us and tried to run us into walls; they've driven their cars up on us; they illegally detained us and searched us; they get in our face and they yell at us; they threaten to use violent force against us," Buehler said. "But we didn't realize until these emails just how deep this intimidation, how deep these efforts were to harm us for trying to hold them accountable."
Buehler also said the group has additional internal emails which have not been released yet that reveal the APD attempted to take another charge to the District Attorney against him for felony child endangerment over the activities of a teenaged member of PSP.
He said he and other members of PSP were interested in pursuing a joint civil action against the APD over their attempts to frame and arrest them for their First Amendment activities.
This is not the first time a municipal police department has labeled a local cop watching group as an extremist organization.
In 2002, internal files from the Denver Police Department's (DPD) Intelligence Unit were leaked to the ACLU, revealing the unit had been spying on several activist groups in the city, and keeping extensive records about members of the activist groups. Many of these groups were branded as "criminal extremist" organizations in what later became a full-scale controversy widely known as the Denver police's "spy files." Some of the groups falsely branded as "criminal extremist" groups included three police accountability organizations: Denver CopWatch, End the Politics of Cruelty and Justice for Mena.
Again, from October 2003 through the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August 2004, intelligence digests produced by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) on dozens of activist groups, including several police accountability organizations, were made public under a federal court order. The NYPD labeled participants of the "Operation CopWatch" effort as criminal extremists.
Those who participated in "Operation CopWatch" during the RNC hoped to identify undercover cops who might attempt to provoke violence during demonstrations and document police violence or misconduct against protesters.
Communities Benefiting From Cop Watch Patrols Resist Police Retaliation Against Watchers
In some major urban areas, rates of police harassment of individuals drop considerably after cop watchers take to the streets - and communities band together to defend cop watch patrols that experience police retaliation, say veteran cop watchers.
Veteran police accountability activist José Martín has trained and organized with several organizations that participate in cop watch activities. Martín has been detained and arrested several times while cop watching with organized patrols in New York and Chicago.
His arrests in New York are part of a widely documented problem in the city. In fact, retaliation in New York against cop watchers has been so widespread that the NYPD had to send out an official memo to remind officers that it is perfectly legal for civilians to film cops on duty.
Martín described an experience in Chicago in which he felt police unjustly retaliated against him after a local CopWatch group formed and began regularly patrolling Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. After the group became well-known by the Pilsen community, residents gathered around an officer who had detained Martín after a patrol one night in 2009, calling for his release. The officer let him go shortly after.
"When cop watchers are retaliated against, if the community is organized, if there is a strong relationship between cop watch patrols and the community, but most importantly, if the cop watchers are people of the community, that community has the power to push back against retaliation and prevent its escalation," Martín said. "Retaliation doesn't work if you stand together."
Another veteran cop watcher, Jacob Crawford, co-founder of Oakland's We Copwatch, is helping the community of Ferguson, Missouri, organize cop watch patrols and prepare the community for the potential of police retaliation. His group raised $6,000 to pass out 110 cameras to organizers and residents in Ferguson, and train them to monitor police activity in the aftermath of the upheavals that rocked the city after Wilson killed Brown.
"I do expect retaliation, I do expect that these things won't be easy, but these folks are in it," Crawford told Truthout. "This is something that makes more sense to them than not standing up for themselves."
Candice Bernd is an assistant editor/reporter with Truthout. With her partner, she is co-writing and co-producing Don't Frack With Denton, a documentary chronicling how her hometown became the first city to ban fracking in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.
Spying on Campus: New York Police Caught Monitoring Muslim Student Groups Throughout Northeast
By Amy Goodman, Democracy NOW! | Video Report
Police on Playback - Copwatch in New York City
By The New York Video League, Waging Nonviolence | Video
American Police Reform and Consent Decrees
By Ali Winston, Truthout | News
Truthout Interviews Featuring Aaron Cantu on TV Cop Shows and Police Violence
By Ted Asregadoo, Truthout | Video Interview
Police Continue to Violate Press Freedom in Ferguson
By Jessica Desvarieux, The Real News Network | Video Report
No Wonder Freddie Gray Ran From the Cops
A fatal injury in police custody highlights Baltimore's history of bogus busts.
by Jacob Sullum | Reason --- May 6, 2015
The 'Good Cop' doesn't fear being filmed on duty because the 'Good Cop' isn't doing anything wrong !!!
Police on Playback - Copwatch in New York City
By The New York Video League, Waging Nonviolence | Video
Stories of police brutality are often told in a way that casts victims as helpless bystanders of cops run amok. We met with Sean Pagan, a recent victim of police violence, and found that his story changes how we think about policing in New York. Sean’s story shows that communities are finding new and innovative tactics for dealing with discriminatory policing, beyond waiting for legislative reform. One such tactic is copwatch, in which individuals or teams film police officers in action. But what’s the history of the tactic? What are the risks, limitations and impact of filming the police? And how do these videos change the way we understand narratives of police violence?
THE NEW YORK VIDEO LEAGUE
The New York Video League was founded this summer by Nate Lavey, Rachel Tomlinson and Martyna Starosta. Inspired by the Photo League, which was active from the 1930s to 1950s, the New York Video League is a journalism collective that aims to supply news organizations with short, compelling documentary work that explains and contextualizes undertold stories of political and social struggle.
Police beat already unconscious suspect
The suspect tries to run over an officer, then later flips his car, is ejected and lies unconscious on the side of the road.
Police then start punching and kicking him. This is in Birmingham, Alabama
What to Say When the Police Tell You to Stop Filming Them
“Photography is a form of power, and people are loath to give up power, including police officers.”
Freelance photographer Angel Zayas is detained by police officers for taking photos in the New York City subway on November 27, 2012. Zayas told Reuters he was arrested when he continued to photograph officers after they ordered him to stop. Carlo Allegri / Reuters
First of all, they shouldn’t ask.
“As a basic principle, we can’t tell you to stop recording,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of D.C.’s metropolitan police union and a 21-year veteran on the force. “If you’re standing across the street videotaping, and I’m in a public place, carrying out my public functions, [then] I’m subject to recording, and there’s nothing legally the police officer can do to stop you from recording.”
“What you don’t have a right to do is interfere,” he says. “Record from a distance, stay out of the scene, and the officer doesn’t have the right to come over and take your camera, confiscate it.”
Officers do have a right to tell you to stop interfering with their work, Burton told me, but they still aren’t allowed to destroy film.
Yet still some officers do. Last week, an amateur video appeared to show a U.S. Marshal confiscating and destroying a woman’s camera as she filmed him.
“Photography is a form of power, and people are loath to give up power, including police officers. It’s a power struggle where the citizen is protected by the law but, because it is a power struggle, sometimes that’s not enough,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Stanley wrote the ACLU’s “Know Your Rights” guide for photographers, which lays out in plain language the legal protections that are assured people filming in public. Among these: Photographers can take pictures of anything in plain view from public space—including public officials—but private land owners may set rules for photography on their property. Cops also can’t “confiscate or demand to view” audio or video without a warrant, and they can’t ever delete images.
The ACLU’s guide does caution that “police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.”
What if that happens, and you disagree with the officer?
“If it were me, and an officer came up and said, ‘You need to turn that camera off, sir,’ I would strive to calmly and politely yet firmly remind the officer of my rights while continuing to record the interaction, and not turn the camera off,” Stanley told me.
“In the majority of situations, an officer is just trying to intimidate you, and stop your reporting. Once you make it clear to the officer that you do know what your rights are and that you don’t intend to be intimidated, I think in the vast majority of situations, the officer will back down,” he says.
Daniel Sanchez recommended a slightly different tactic. Sanchez is an organizer for Copwatch in the Bronx, a program organized by a local advocacy group called the Justice Committee, which films officers at work in low-income neighborhoods. “We train volunteers to calmly respond, ‘I’m just exercising my constitutionally protected right to document police activity,’” he told me.
Most officers, says Sanchez, now know that bystanders have a legal right to film police. Now, instead of hearing assertions that they can’t record at all, he says that Copwatch volunteers are accused of interfering with police activity.
“What we hear is, you can’t film here, you need to back up,” he told me.
At which point, says Sanchez, the volunteer complies—by taking one step back.
“The back-up game, is what I call it. ‘I did back up, officer, I am backing up, here, I’ll take another step back,’” Sanchez says.
The goal is to perform strictly legal compliance with the officer’s actions while still asserting the right to film. Although bystanders should make that initial assertion of legality, every situation is different, Sanchez and Stanley agree.
“Every incident is really is its own unique situation, and it depends on the nature of the police officers you're dealing with,” Sanchez says. “We can give people guidelines and suggestions, but at the end of the day people need to make their own judgements.”
“If you’re dealing with a belligerent police officer, that’s a dangerous situation—police officers have a lot of power—and you need to make a judgement about the importance of what you’re doing, and about the risk you’re willing to take, versus your own sense of justice,” says Stanley.
And Stanley’s ACLU guide supplies the one question those stopped for taking photos or video may ask an officer:
If stopped for photography, the right question to ask is, ‘am I free to go?’ If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
In many situations where officers are not already being recorded, Sanchez says, filming can change officer-bystander relations.
“I’ve seen incidences where they’re verbally berating a community member and we show up on the scene and the entire scene switches,” he told me. But he also doubted that police-worn body cameras would change officer behavior.
Burton, meanwhile, says that in Washington and other high-security cities, officers already assume they’re being filmed.
“In the District of Columbia, and in places like Boston, where there are so many cameras in public places, there’s almost nowhere you can go where you’re not being recorded. So we tell our officers, that’s the way you should behave all the time—as if you’re being recorded.”
After decades of Police killing without consequence and Police lying without consequence,
the camera is the citizen's only tool...
the only avenue to the truth...
never leave home without it !!!