Recently, I watched an online "viral" video in which a protester holding an "Impeach Obama" sign was roughed up by security personnel at a state fair. While the protester certainly was manhandled, the force used might or might not have been justified. I pictured a jury at the man's trial watching the video as evidence. Did the man's actions warrant the force he received? Did he give the security officers provocation? What about the context for the incident? And what do the security people have to say about it all – the people who, when they saw they were being videotaped, asked the cameraman to shut off his machine?
To his credit, that cameraman's answer was an immediate and emphatic "No." He was not going to be bullied into letting those in authority do whatever they liked behind metaphorical closed doors. What that cameraman may not have thought to ask himself, however, is this: Could he be charged with a crime for recording the protester's arrest? Just what are the consequences for filming someone in public – specifically, for filming a police officer in public?
As the technology to record video becomes ever more accessible and less expensive, the prevalence of handheld video cameras (often in the form of wireless phones) has increased dramatically. Public surveillance by our government has increased, too, and we as Americans must contend with the shadow of Big Brother looming larger over us with each passing day. The good thing about video, however, is that it makes no judgments, provided it is not edited in bad faith or filmed from a compromising angle. A video of an incident tells the truth about what happened more accurately than any eyewitness can relate. So why are more and more law enforcement and government officials trying to make criminals of citizens who record encounters with police?
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The Chicago Tribune asks, "Police record citizens. Why not the other way around?" The Tribune story points out that Chicago has one of the largest networks of surveillance cameras in the country. In Illinois, however, it's illegal to record the police – even if you're trying to gather evidence of police wrongdoing. If you try it, you could be arrested and charged with a felony. This is because in Illinois both parties must consent to the recording of a conversation ... unless one of those parties is a police officer.
In Maryland, a man faces a staggering 16 years in prison after he posted a YouTube video of his interaction with a state trooper. The trooper, driving an unmarked car (in other words, not driving an obvious law-enforcement vehicle) and not wearing a uniform, cut in front of Anthony Graber (who is a Maryland Air National Guard sergeant), brandished a gun and yelled at Graber – all before identifying himself as a police officer. Yet it is Graber who is supposedly the criminal despite the damning evidence of the trooper's misconduct and abuse of authority – thanks to Maryland's wiretap laws, and thanks to the aggressive prosecution under them of citizens with video cameras.
How can this double-standard possibly be legal or constitutional? The left-leaning ACLU, no real friend to the natural rights of American citizens, is in this case on the right side of our nation's founding documents. The liberal organization is suing to stop Cook County prosecutors from charging citizens with a crime should those citizens record police officers who are on duty. ACLU of Illinois claims its 20,000 members (as reported by Frank Main in the Sun Times) are going to embark on a campaign of "monitoring police activity in public places using audio and video recording devices."
The Maryland case has, according to Sara Burrows, "spurred a national debate over the legality of the practice [of videotaping police in public]." She says that at least one local prosecutor in North Carolina would like taping the cops to be illegal under that state's wiretap law, and there are doubtless other government functionaries across the nation who share that sentiment.
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The last thing I'd like to see is the encouragement of flea-bitten hippie activists. We don't need them appointing themselves watchdogs in order to decry as abuse or brutality every justified act of law enforcement. But cops – who mount cameras to their cruisers for good reason – should welcome the impartiality of video evidence.
Such evidence, for example, could make a huge difference in the matter of a vicious and unjustified beating alleged to have occurred in Florida. Videotape would make that case more than just one cop's word against his fellow officers'. But if an incident like this occurs in one of the increasingly prevalent municipalities where filming the cops is illegal, there's no recourse – not for the citizen, and not even for a cop or cops outnumbered in the fight against corruption.
To preserve what remains of our free society, videotaping those in power when they operate in public (or in our homes) must be legal. It is the most effective way to help prevent abuses of power that would otherwise go unseen and unpunished. The danger presented to law-enforcement officers' safety, or to their efficacy as agents of our government, is negligible, in my opinion. The loss to every one of us should we give up the right to record police does far greater damage to society and to the individuals it comprises.
While I would never adopt the leftist, authoritarian attitude that, "If you've got nothing to hide you should welcome Big Brother looking over your shoulder for your own good," this isn't about public surveillance of free citizens. It's about providing a check on the otherwise unbridled power of law enforcement officers to abuse their considerable discretion when nobody is looking. It's about keeping honest the men and women who are empowered to exercise authority – and force in the name of authority – over their fellow free citizens. It's about watching the watchmen through the unblinking and unbiased eye of a camera lens.