Police and cameras on a collision course

the tools of the peopleThe inevitable conflict between people with cameras and people in authority is heating up, and news organizations need to be doing more than just paying attention. This is one of those sticky issues between the personal media revolution and traditional media, because one’s perspective on the matter determines where you stand. If you’re a “member of the press,” you enjoy certain freedoms at crime scenes, etc., and your concern about the rights of everyday citizens is limited to whether their pictures or video are of sufficient interest to warrant insertion in your own work. If you’re an everyday Joe with a camera, your interest is more self-driven, but both groups are heading for a showdown with authority sooner or later.

The real sore spot is when that which is being photographed is authority operating outside their authority, as in the case of overzealous cops beating the crap out of somebody. You can apparently take all the pictures you want on a public street, unless the subject in the viewfinder makes law enforcement look bad.

In an utterly chilling report from independent news source Alternet.org, reporter Rania Khalek writes: “More and more people use their smartphones to record police misconduct. But laws against wiretapping are being used to intimidate and stop them.” If the public is the new media (I’ll get to that in a minute), then our culture has a serious problem on its hands.

One would think the fear of videographers on every block would be a powerful deterrent to police misconduct. However, legislatures are not taking this newfound power against police abuse lightly. In at least three states, it is illegal to record any on-duty police officer, even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists. The legal justification is usually based on the warped interpretation of existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited.

Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland are among the 12 states where all parties must consent for a recording to be legal. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested and charged with a felony.

…The most pernicious prosecutions to date have taken place in Illinois, where the sentence for recording a police officer is considered a class 1 felony — on par with a rape charge — and can land a person behind bars for more than a decade.

These cases are, of course, thrown out of court, but that hasn’t stopped the arrests. Police have argued that they need protection from all these cameras, because it might inhibit officers from doing their jobs in the field (here, here, here).

Khalek’s article is worth reading, because it references many current and past cases and reveals a growing tendency on the part of police in several locations to confiscate the cameras and phones of onlookers in the name of seizing evidence.

Narces Benoit's videoIn Miami Beach on Memorial Day weekend, 12 cops sprayed Raymond Herisse’s car with 100 bullets, killing him. Herisse was a career criminal who police say tried to run over officers with his car. The police then seized and destroyed cameras and phones. One man, Narces Benoit, removed the SIM card from his phone and put it in his mouth. When his footage was later aired by CNN, police were caught in their lies about what went down.

CNN is an interested party in all of this, because of the huge success of its iReport unit. In a recent interview with Beet.tv, Lila King, Participation Director at CNN Digital and longtime head of iReport noted that contributions of citizen reporters have become “core of he the way we tell big, breaking stories.” iReport has 800,000 citizen reporters around the world, but those in the U.S. face ridiculous charges, if they cross the acceptable line with local law enforcement.

And, of course, citizen journalists aren’t the only ones subject to the overzealous behavior of cops. Last Friday in New York, Suffolk County Police arrested a freelance news photographeron obstruction charges when he refused to stop video taping police. Police say the charges will be dropped, but the point is that, again, legal authority was used to inhibit the gathering of news, and this must concern us all.

This issue is only going to get worse, and ultimately, it’ll be up to Congress and the courts to figure it all out. The law of unintended consequences is waiting in the wings, however, as governments try to press their need for authority over this in public. The First Amendment is the “first” for a reason, and in the age of its writing, it protected those who bought ink by the barrel and those who printed their pamphlets any way they could.

We’ve entered a new age, the depth and reality of which is being revealed more and more with each passing day. People with cameras will take pictures, and the truth is we NEED them to be taking pictures. Yes, there needs to be a few rules. Yes, there are privacy issues. Yes, authorities need to be able to do their jobs. In the end, however, there’s simply too much at stake for all this to play out without the input of professional media companies. Here are some thoughts about what we can do.

  • Each company needs to make a quality decision about whether the rights of citizens to photograph or take videos at news scenes is something we wish to support. Assuming the answer is “yes,” then we must get involved, in the courts by filing friend-of-the-court briefs and at the legislative level, both locally and nationally.
  • Local media properties would be smart to be proactive in the matter. Have meetings with local officials to determine their wants and needs and encourage their participation BEFORE it becomes a problem in your market.
  • Involve the public in the effort and solicit their participation through social media or otherwise.
  • Own the story. This is something that impacts anybody with a smartphone. What ARE their rights? If we want their pictures and their videos, we need to make sure we’re publicly supporting their actions.

In this country, the right to report news isn’t reserved only for élite professional organizations, despite the reality that we’ve operated that way for a long time. We want and need to stay as far away from “licensing” as possible, for who then would report on those providing the licenses? Times have changed, and there’s no going back. The best we can do is adapt, and in this issue, that means getting involved.

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