DC Police Chief Lays Down New Cell/Camera Policy: 'Don't Seize. Don't Delete. Don't Interfere.'

from the they're-not-First-Amendment-'privileges' dept

There’s a long history of police officers abusing their power to prevent documentation of their actions via cellphones and cameras. For the most part, this has been the norm, rather than being relegated to outlying, “rogue” police departments. Some attempts at “controlling” this interaction have been blatant: illegal seizures of phones and cameras. Others have just been exploitations of the existing system, like twisting wiretap laws to make citizen recordings illegal or somehow insisting on privacy rights despite being a public servant in a public setting.

However, some good news (disguised as common sense) has arrived in the form of the Washington D.C. police force's new cell camera policy. Put together as part of a settlement with Jerome Vorus, who sued the city (with the ACLU's help) after Georgetown police told him to stop taking photos of a traffic stop, the new policy pretty much reflects how most citizens feel the system should have been working all along, which means it's a drastic departure from the way many law enforcement camera policies are worded (if they have them at all).

Washington D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier takes care to (re)inform the officers of the public's constitutional rights and details specifics to hopefully eliminate loopholes and “workarounds.” Perhaps the boldest statement is in regards to recording police activity, which minces no words upholding the public's First Amendment rights:

“A bystander has the same right to take photographs or make recordings as a member of the media,” Chief Lanier writes. The First Amendment protects the right to record the activities of police officers, not only in public places such as parks and sidewalks, but also in “an individual’s home or business, common areas of public and private facilities and buildings, and any other public or private facility at which the individual has a legal right to be present.”

Lanier says that if an officer sees an individual recording his or her actions, the officer may not use that as a basis to ask the citizen for ID, demand an explanation for the recording, deliberately obstruct the camera, or arrest the citizen. And she stresses that under no circumstances should the citizen be asked to stop recording.

It gets even better. Not only are officers prevented from preventing the recording from happening, they are also not allowed to use vague terms like “obstruction” or the ever-popular (but not a real crime) “contempt of cop” to halt recordings.

That applies even in cases where the citizen is recording “from a position that impedes or interferes with the safety of members or their ability to perform their duties.” In that situation, she says, the officer may ask the person to move out of the way, but the officer “shall not order the person to stop photographing or recording.”

She also notes that “a person has the right to express criticism of the police activity being observed.”

Another aspect that Lanier has covered is the seizure of cell phones or cameras, often done under the auspices that footage or photos might be “evidence.” This gathering of “evidence” has been abused frequently as well, often resulting in the destruction of “evidence” that reflects badly on the officers involved. Other times, any sort of “evidence” pretext is tossed out completely, with officers seizing cell phones/cameras simply to remove damaging footage. D.C.'s new policy will make this sort of behavior much more difficult (although, certainly not impossible).

Lanier's directive addresses another scenario that is becoming increasingly common: a civilian takes a photograph or recording that a police officer believes could constitute evidence of a crime. Under Lanier's directive, an individual cop cannot take a recording device away from a citizen without his or her consent. “Consent to take possession of a recording device or medium must be given voluntarily,” she writes.

In the event that the cop believes the recording is needed for evidence but its owner isn't willing to part with it, the officer is required to call his supervisor. The device or recording media can be seized only if the supervisor is present, only if “there is probable cause to believe that the property holds contraband or evidence of a crime,” and only if “the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.”

D.C. law enforcement members are also instructed that they may not “under any circumstances” erase or delete images and sound from seized recording devices and that these devices must be maintained and returned intact, with all data present, to the owners at the end of the investigation.

This is all a huge step forward for the public's relationship with law enforcement. Removing the false “expectation of privacy” that has shielded many bad actors is an important change and reasserting the public's First Amendment rights as trumping law enforcement's antagonistic attitude toward observation is very definitely a win for US citizens. It's somewhat unfortunate that it took a lawsuit, the ACLU and a forward-thinking police chief to “restore” these rights, but having a new policy publicly deliver this message should temper future interactions between the public and those sworn to protect them.

The real test will come when violations are reported. The policy itself has a lot of verbal teeth but there are many badly-behaving police officers who have run afoul of the laws they were hired to uphold and escaped with little more than some stern words and paid vacation. If D.C. can take the lead, both in instituting a tough set of policies and, more importantly, enforcing these policies, one would hope that the rest of the nation's police forces would look to this as the model on which to base their own policies.

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Comments on “DC Police Chief Lays Down New Cell/Camera Policy: 'Don't Seize. Don't Delete. Don't Interfere.'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

anyone know who has been lined up to take her place as Washington D.C. police chief? just because she has now put into print exactly what the policy was/is and how it should have been regarded by police officers anyway doesn’t mean she is safe from losing the job. the only thing on her side is the court case just sorted out and how that could be used to her advantage if she was sacked

alanbleiweiss (profile) says:

Re: Re:

and people who look at the U.S. with holier-than-thou bogus concepts are equally so predictable. We have a document. It’s called the Constitution. We’re afforded rights as citizens. To play the “just wait til blah blah blah and the person sues” card is nonsense.

It’s disingenuous within the light of the problem at hand, the disregard for our legally established rights as individuals.

That is the bigger issue because those situations lead to a police state.

alanbleiweiss (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

that’s the beauty of the D.C. chief’s actions. It’s a sign (yet to be tested, let alone reverberated across the country) that someone in power actually does care. Or was woken up to care. Or is pretending she cares in the hopes that she’ll be able to leverage this with the majority of D.C. citizens who hate the cops. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“and people who look at the U.S. with holier-than-thou bogus concepts are equally so predictable. We have a document. It’s called the Constitution. We’re afforded rights as citizens. To play the “just wait til blah blah blah and the person sues” card is nonsense. “

Umm, what the heck are you talking around? Don’t you get it? The police get ordered not to take action, someone gets hurt or killed while using their “right” to film, and then blames the police force for not keeping them secure, while they were right at the scene.

It’s not for all situations, but in some cases, it could easily happen. What do you think the liability would be?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

How about you read the article, the police are still fully capable of having you physically move to a new location just like they always have been. They just can’t do anything, in any way shape or form, that has the intention of preventing you from recording an event.

English is a tricky language and I’m sorry you don’t read and comprehend it well, but you should probably ensure you understand what you are reading before you start shooting your mouth off.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

> it could easily happen. What do you think
> the liability would be?

Simple. The liability rests with the idiot who was more interested in his cell phone camera than not walking out into traffic or into a live-fire situation.

The police are not required to go around protecting everyone from their own stupidity 24/7.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The real fun will be when some idiot is filming police and gets shot by the perp or gets hit by a car while standing in the road to film – and then sues the police for letting him film.

If someone is standing in the road to film, they are breaking a different, well-established and solid law regardless. This doesn’t affect that.

As far as getting shot goes, I can’t see such a lawsuit getting very far, and would get absolutely nowhere suing the police. You can’t successfully sue the police for obeying the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

and then you will have the morons shoving cameras in the cops faces getting fully in the way and screaming you cant touch me the D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier said I could, like little spoiled children, how about just stay the hell away and film from a safe distance, but you wont do that, you want to be in their face screaming about your rights, while interfering with their job

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Then the police will film such behaviour and use it against such people who want to abuse the rights they were given, numbnut, because the behaviour you describe does count as obstruction. Who the hell is saying that the police can’t protect themselves within reasonable limits?

Why don’t you try that in D.C. and tell us how it works out, since you’re so confident that what Lanier says legitimises the behaviour you describe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Get a grip. Are we talking about grown up police officers who are wearing their big people pants? If someone cannot handle members of the public being enthusiastic about the rights police officers swear to uphold, maybe police work is not for that person.

As to a small minority of people who might behave less than politely to police just because they are punks, so what? If they are not breaking the law they are within their lawful rights and the overall value of lawful rights to the community far exceeds any annoyance some police officer may be obilged to not act on, in the course of their paid employment.

Dave says:

Similar in UK

UK police have been repeatedly warned in a similar fashion by the hierarchy but they still continue to disregard instructions and try to make up the law as they go along:
Seems that there is very little in the way of punishment or deterrent to stop officers acting this way. Individuals seem to get away with it time and time again. If court action follows, it’s the force, not the officer concerned that gets sued.

Thomas (profile) says:

and the day

after this…yet another cop in Washington DC confiscated a woman’s camera and returned it later minus the SD card which contained the pictures.

Obviously the police chief is just grandstanding and trying to look good to the press while in fact it’s business as usual for the cops. Cops still believe that no one has a right to photograph/video them. They want to prevent people from getting evidence when they beat the crap out of innocent people.

Photographing/taking video of a cop is a good way to get arrested or lose your camera or get beaten or all three. Never never photograph/video around a cop if you value your phone/camera and your health.

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