If police can record us, they can't arrest us for recording them

Many police departments are putting small video cameras on their officers:

Oakland and hundreds of other police departments across the country are equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a hot vehicle pursuit to an unfolding violent crime….

Officers are required to turn on their cameras for calls. They are also required to download their video within a day and they are not allowed to edit or manipulate it.

This is a potentially great thing. But I have three worries:

First, there should be no way for a bad cop to “forget” to turn on their video recorder or “accidentally” erase a recording.

Second, the accused must have access to all relevant recordings. Videos must not become something the police can use when it makes them look good and something they can suppress when it makes them look bad. Police departments have withheld video recordings that incriminate themselves.

And, third, there must be a balance of rights between police and non-police. If police have the right to record their interactions with the public, then the public has the right to record their interactions with the police. Instead, police in many cities and towns have been extremely aggressive about threatening, harassing and arresting Americans for the “crime” of recording public police activities:

It’s a huge problem.

Because guns kill, I don’t buy the “if everyone had guns, we would all be safer” argument. But I do believe this regarding video cameras, which can help juries determine who did what to whom. Bad police would behave better if they suspected non-police might be recording them and feared their own recordings could be used against them. And good police would be better protected against false claims by the public about harassment and abuse if they and others recorded their actions. As it stands today, it often becomes a “he said, she said” between a police officer and an ordinary citizen. This allows bad police to behave badly toward anyone juries might disrespect or be prejudiced against for any reason, like when L.A. police beat Rodney King.

Depressingly, in many communities today, video is a weapon of the police that those same police are (illegally) denying to the public. This must change.

Posted by James on Sunday, July 10, 2011