Police and Accountability

I have written before that the inexpensive handheld video camera is perhaps the most important innovation in police accountability in my lifetime.  So of course, the police want them banned.

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now 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....

In short, recordings that are flattering to the police - an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog - will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.

Folks who read Radley Balko or Carlos Miller will not find a lot new hear, but it is a very good overview of an issue that is hot among blogs but rarely if ever makes the major media.

After an encounter with the public goes wrong, the police have historically been able to make up any story they want and make it stick, in many cases shifting the blame to innocent civilians.  It is scary to see how many times this happens, with the officer's story shown to be a lie by cameras on site (and even then it can be hard to get the police to investigate).  Only the combination of cameras and YouTube (to publicize the video so it can't be ignored) have begun to bring some justice to these encounters.

HT Alex Tabarrok


  1. Rick:

    From the article, "The legal justification for arresting the "shooter" rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws," Existing, not new. Still bad law but nothing new.

  2. Lt. York:

    "Folks who read Radley Balko or Carlos Miller will not find a lot new hear,"

    Should be "here,"

  3. John Moore:

    I suspect that such bans will not receive friendly treatment from the courts, except in special cases (recording undercover cops and then identifying them online, for example).

  4. Not Sure:

    You don't even have to photograph cops to get in trouble. All you have to do is do something that makes it look like they're not doing anything to help...

    "Clear Creek sheriff's deputies on Thursday arrested a rafting guide for swimming to a stranded young rafter who had tumbled from his boat on Clear Creek."


  5. LowcountryJoe:

    I'm conflicted on this one. In the end, though, I think that law enforcement-types cannot expect to have the same rights as private citizens while they are on-duty. And while they're on-duty they best be acting in the public's interest. On the other hand, it's the preceeding stuff that somehow doesn't make it in a posted video -- only giving the emotionally-charged viewer a fraction of the story in which to be outraged over.

  6. DrTorch:

    Yeah, they might get more stuff like this on film


    OTOH, they might catch people like this


    Assuming the story is true ;-)

  7. Zach:

    "On the other hand, it’s the preceeding stuff that somehow doesn’t make it in a posted video"

    So videotape cops 24/7. And don't stop with cops, either. Judges, regulators, representatives, senators, governors, presidents. Anybody responsible for making, executing, or enforcing laws. Put them all under round-the-clock surveillance.

  8. Not Sure:

    "So videotape cops 24/7."

    And why not? I mean- if they're not doing anything wrong, they've got nothing to be afraid of.


  9. tomw:

    I thought it was established law that there is no right to "privacy" while out in public. I thought that a man's castle was, however, private, and LEO's were even proscribed from using thermal imaging tools, such as the case of the MJ grower with sunlamps heating his home/attic abnormally compared to other homes in the vicinity.
    This sounds like something that will go to court real soon now...

  10. Terry Hulsey:

    The most disturbing aspect of this trend to prohibit video of on-duty policemen is the following: Does the prohibition apply to journalists? If B follows A, it would seem that they too must be prohibited. Consider: Your blog is a form of journalism. And since the advent of the Internet, the distinction between journalist and non-journalist is blurred. Let's say the distinction rests on being paid for doing journalism. Fine, then tacking a PayPal link to your blog should make you a journalist. State authorities won't let that stand. Therefore, since the distinction cannot be maintained, ALL video of police activity must be banned, including that of journalists, else everyone could plausibly claim exemption as one. We are left with one logical move, and it is a cul-de-sac: Don't try to define who is a journalist, but rather allow police authorities to censor all videos before posting or publication. These implications are so obvious that it is embarrassing that those who draft these laws (primarily lawyers) can't see them. It is clear that the laws are without reference to any abiding standard other than to protect themselves and those who in many cases act like armed thugs.

  11. Asiren:

    Er... Doesn't that forbid the filming of any protest, parade or celebration where the police are there to ensure the safety of the general public?

    And therefore any public appearance of any influential public figure?

  12. Sean:

    I see just one small issue here. What about ATM cameras and other surveillance by businesses? Are they violating the law when an on-duty cop walks down the street?