Monday, May 16, 2011

Recording The Police, 'Get Over It'

Last week, NPR had a pretty good story about the controversy that some police departments have generated by arresting people for violating wiretap laws when they record interactions between the police and the public on smartphones or other video devices. From the story:

Consider what happened to Khaliah Fitchette. Last year, Fitchette, who was 16 at the time, was riding a city bus in Newark, N.J., when two police officers got on to deal with a man who seemed to be drunk. Fitchette decided this would be a good moment to take out her phone and start recording.

"One of the officers told me to turn off my phone, because I was recording them," she said. "I said no. And then she grabbed me and pulled me off the bus to the cop car, which was behind the bus."

The police erased the video from Fitchette's phone. She was handcuffed and spent the next two hours in the back of a squad car before she was released. No charges were filed.

Fitchette is suing the Newark Police Department for violating her civil rights. The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped bring the lawsuit.

"All of us, as we walk around, have to understand that we could be filmed, we could be taped," says Deborah Jacobs, director of the ACLU chapter. "But police officers above all others should be subject to this kind of filming because we have a duty to hold them accountable as powerful public servants."

What's ironic here is that the same proliferation of cheap video technology that allows high quality video to be shot from cell phones, is also being used by the police to record their encounters with the public. For years we've seen dashboard mounted video cameras in patrol cars, and now officers are even fielding body worn video systems to record interactions with the public.

A number of years ago, a campus police officer at a neighboring department was confronted with a TV crew filming a disturbance on campus. He responded by putting his hand over the lens and trying to wrestle the camera away from the TV camera man. I still have the image of that video in my mind as I write this. The image it presented to the public was not a good one. In fact, that clip was used for training by other agencies on how not to respond to the media. While this officer was trying to do what he thought was best, he came across looking like a jack booted thug. In fact, this became a bigger story than the original campus disturbance.

This is the age of transparency in government. The public expects that since they really do pay our salaries, they have a right to know how their government operates. Because of this, the old-school attitude of 'you can't film us' is just not going to cut it anymore. It's time to put that attitude away where they put the Gamewell keys and swivel holsters.

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