Last September I witnessed a search of some hippie / crust punk types being executed by a cop in Station North that I thought looked like it was heavily motivated by profiling. Instinctively I whipped out my phone and started recording it. Once the cop saw this, he jogged up to me, took my phone, and told me to sit down on the curb next to his squad car. Telling the crusties to thank me for getting them out of trouble, his attention was entirely focused on myself and my phone. It was then that I learned how much cops hate being videotaped. After being threatened with arrest, the officer convinced me to erase the video on my phone, which he oversaw, and let me go. I don't entirely blame the cop for being unreasonable, because at the time he may have believed he was within his rights to act as he did.
As it turns out, it is legal to videotape cops as long as they are acting within the public sphere. The Baltimore Police Department just issued a statement days before a court judgment was issued Monday in the case of Christopher Sharp. The statement from the BCPD, issued by chief legal counsel Mark Grimes, says officers may not "prevent or prohibit" someone from recording in public. Sharp, who is being represented by the ACLU, was at the 2010 Preakness and witnessed an arrest he felt was being taken a bit too far. After being bullied into giving the officers his phone with the video on it, they erased every video on the phone and returned it to him. The Department, probably understanding that they are about to get pummeled in court, issued this reiteration of a long-standing but poorly understood or enforced order last week. A couple of videos regarding the Sharp case are below, with an interview with the plaintiff and another view of the original encounter from yet another witness with a phone.
There are a lot of reasons that the ubiquitous use of phones as video watch-dogs needs to be dealt with in a more fair and clear manner. As they become more prevalent, the police can either harness the power of this new source of surveillance or suffer its wrath. Sometimes the footage can be used as evidence to support an officer in court, and a caveat to the Department's official policy regarding the freedom to disseminate these videos calls for citizens to cooperate with the police when their video may be used as evidence (such as catching a license plate on video, etc.). See below for a clip that ended up supporting claims by police that their job is absolutely crazy.
However, there seems to be a lot of ready examples of how the police have been caught either in compromising situations or outright disregard for civility on video. Just ask Ricky Thomas, a Baltimore man blamed for assault on a police officer, who was acquitted because the incident was caught on video and he was actually the victim of police brutality (Baltimore Sun article here). The most famous of these examples is of officer Salvatore Rivieri, who eventually lost his job over these incidents, berating a couple of kids because they were skateboarding in the inner harbor. Notice the almost 6 million views.
So with what seems to be an awful lot of fuss over the issue lately, one would think the officers would be more cognizant of their actions regarding camera-phones. Amazingly, just one day after Friday's issuance of the order from the BCPD, another incident happened in Federal Hill. Scott Cover, a native of Federal Hill, witnessed an arrest and began to record it with his phone. A Lieutenant noticed him and threatened him with arrest and chased him away from the scene, pepper spray in hand. Watch that video below.
Hopefully the BCPD will further clarify to all the officers what the rules are, and enforce them more vigilantly. As citizens, it is our duty to assist officers when we can help them serve and protect, to not hinder them in performing their duties, and to call them on their mistakes when we witness them.