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.