Thursday, June 23, 2011

Videotaping Police

With cellphones having the capability of capturing video wherever and whenever, anytime something out of the ordinary occurs it gets captured. Anything that involves the police is out of the ordinary, so there have been more and more instances of police conduct that have been recorded.

This is something that the police do not like. Indeed, a woman in Rochester, New York was arrested for videotaping police conducting a traffic stop from her front yard. The officer had clearly been trained to inform the taper that he did not "feel safe" with the person making a record of his work in public and when she declared that she was well within her rights to record from her own property in a way that in no way affected the proceedings she was witnessing, he took her away, charging her with obstructing governmental administration.

After these incidents, the officers are required to fill out a report, and their word has generally been taken as decisive as the official story of what happened. But with the existence of alternative records that are more objective, false statements in police reports can be shown to be such. Further, any misconduct on the part of the officer will be more than he said/she said hearsay. Police officers are rightly entrusted with a lot of power, but that power can -- and certainly in a number of cases, is -- misused. When you are used to having power, the last thing you want is to have it checked.

So, some states are now making it illegal to videotape police working. The argument is that it minimizes interference and makes the police more effective. The argument on the other side is that the possibility of being taped will make police less likely to abuse their power, whether it is running over the rights of those involved or using unnecessary brutal force.

There also seems to be a free speech concern here, although one could make the case that it is a "fire in a crowded movie house" type exception.

So, should videotaping police activity -- assuming it is not for use in planning a crime -- be legal? Are the laws banning it unconstitutional?