Filming the Police: Laws and Your Rights

In just 24 hours, we have seen police kill two innocent black men at point blank range while they were doing nothing that warranted a threat. An officer’s perception of “imminent danger” seems to be easier to find when they are confronting a black person, and the only reason we know about what happened in these two cases is because we have video evidence. According to a Washington Post database, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille are, respectively, the 505th and 506th people to be killed by police so far in 2016; they are the 122nd and 123rd African-Americans to meet such a horrible fate.

The in-your-face, too-tragic-to-watch-but-too-important-to-look-away videos taken by Castille’s girlfriend and bystanders in the Sterling shooting are graphic. Castille was just reaching for his license, per the officer’s request. Sterling was merely selling CDs. Both had concealed carry permits, both announced that they were carrying and had said permits. But now, because of ill-trained police officers, two families are without fathers. Again, we can bring the issues of racism, police brutality and gun laws to light because someone pulled out their phone and hit record. But what are the laws regarding the filming of police?

Laws and Rulings on Filming the Police

In general, you are well within your rights to record the police. However, a February ruling in the case of Fields v. City of Philadelphia did not give First Amendment protections to the filming of police officers. This was their conclusion: “We have not found, and the experienced counsel have not cited, any case in the Supreme Court or this Circuit finding citizens have a First Amendment right to record police conduct without any stated purpose of being critical of the government.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is appealing the ruling, but for now this is the first time a federal court has ruled specifically in the matter of filming the police. There have been numerous rulings on whether the police can search your phone without a warrant, but for now this is strictly about the right to film.

Diving deeper into the Pennsylvania District Court ruling, the judge further added that, “While we instinctively understand the citizens’ argument, particularly with rapidly developing instant image sharing technology, we find no basis to craft a new First Amendment right based solely on ‘observing and recording’ without expressive conduct.” Expressive conduct means you must announce your actions in order to have your rights protected. There are also time, place and manner of expression restrictions when it comes to filming the police.

These restrictions are placed on the First Amendment in general, so these are not specific to recording. The restrictions that most have likely heard of are called libel and slander, e.g., making false or egregious statements about another person in print or spoken words. Also, if you are in a private place such as a business where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy, then you are subject to the owner’s provisions. This is why many concert venues and bands are able to ban photography. So if you are in a public place such as a park or street that is used by everyone, then you are within your rights to film the police.

There are some things to know, however: You must remain at a safe distance. This is of course subjective, but stay at what you deem is a safe distance from the police proceedings. You must not interfere in any way shape or form. Do not move closer to try and get a better view, and do not draw attention to yourself.

Protocol For Officer-Involved Shooting

Many often wonder what actually goes on during the training for new officers. Specifically, what is the protocol for drawing and discharging their weapon? What are they supposed to do afterwards? Castille bled out and died from four gunshot wounds because no first-aid was administered at any point after he was shot. No doubt he should have been tended to. But what is law enforcement taught to do when a shooting occurs?

The Cleveland Police went under investigation for their training tactics in the aftermath of the killing of 12-year old Tamir Rice. Experts noted a number of tactical errors when it comes to dealing with someone they believe to be armed. Firstly, stopping the car so close to him was wrong. Police are supposed to create a barrier at a safe distance between themselves and someone holding a gun. Once they do this, they draw their weapons and command the suspect to drop the gun and get down on the ground. What happens next is dependent on whether the suspect complies.

If they do, then one officer should approach the suspect and search them for additional weapons, keeping their non-dominant hand free for the search and/or to radio for help. If they do not comply, then a multitude of factors need to be considered. How many suspects are there, how big are they, how old are they, do they have a history of crimes or mental illness? However, too often these factors are not considered. Reaching for the waistband, or any movement whatsoever, makes the police think they are in their right to shoot. They are protecting themselves first, and citizens second. And therein lies part of the problem with law enforcement.

There is extensive protocol for officers to follow when a partner is shot. As well there should be, that isn’t the problem. What is the problem is that extensive searching turned up no results for the steps to providing care for a citizen who was shot, even if that person was shot by an officer. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but the Castille shooting is a prime example of a panicked officer not knowing what to do after discharging his firearm.

Why Are Police Shootings So Common?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question. The militarization of police, racism and improper training could all play a part. The police are not always at fault, and many times their use of lethal force is justified. But proper investigation should follow. It is certainly clear that far too many law enforcement agencies place too much importance on the operation of a gun rather than on de-escalating a situation. They resort to violence to de-escalate, and it often results in the slaying of an innocent person.

In the past 15 years, officer-involved killings have increased dramatically. Estimates from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice differ greatly in this regard. But estimates based on news sources have it well into the thousands in the last five years, with increases being recorded from each year to the next. Training could go a long way towards keeping an officer from shooting someone who was just reaching for their license.

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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