More states move to outlaw photographing police activity; Walter Scott shooting video illustrates the necessity

Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC
Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC

News unfolded this week about the police shooting of the unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. It’s another in a long line of fatal shootings by police, many unprovoked and often with underlying race issues. In March of this year, in fact, American police killed more people (111) than the UK police have killed in total since 1900 (52).

In Walter Scott’s murder, video taken by a bystander has played an incredibly important role. In fact, look at the sort of statements about the killing made before the video was released. Initially the police department defended the actions of police officer Michael Slager, saying he followed all procedures. The graphic video, available at the New York Times, contradicts the initial narrative of the incident and apparently shows the police officer planting a taser near Scott’s body. After the video, officer Slager was arrested and charged with murder. And while video evidence of Eric Garner’s killing by police was not enough for a grand jury indictment (the whole grand jury system has issues, especially when dealing with accused police officers), it’s clear that the right to film and photograph police activity plays an important role in American democracy.

There has been widespread call for police to wear body cameras at all times, though many rightly suggest that this will be most effective only if the cameras and video are controlled and archived by an independent third party. The US Department of Justice has a huge document titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. The ACLU is also worried about violations of individuals’ privacy when police record all activity all the time, as well. Nevertheless, it’s been shown that police body cameras have substantial positive effects on policing, including less violence and fewer citizen complaints.

Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.” Montana Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings)

All of this should illustrate why it is so troubling that states around the country continue attempts to restrict people’s right to record police activity with video or still photography. We’ve covered the issue often over the past few years. This year, both Montana (where I’m from) and Texas legislators have proposed laws restricting the filming of police. The proposed (now dropped, see update below) Texas law HB 2918 would only allow registered “news media” to record police, and only from at least 25 feet away. The Montana law, proposed bill HB633, would also only allow media to film police and require them to get a $100 permit from the police department to be filmed. Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings) introduced the bill and said that, “Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.”

The tide may be turning on this issue, though. Both Colorado and California legislators recently introduced bills to protect those who film police. In Colorado, HB 15-1290, creates punishments for officers found to have interfered with people lawfully recording their activity. The proposed California bill, SB 411, clarifies state law by stating that merely recording a police officer conducting official duty should not automatically be considered interference with a police officer. A Baltimore police department recently paid $250,000 for seizing and deleting people’s cell phone videos. And a Seattle police officer was recently fired after threatening to arrest a newspaper editor for filming him.

The only person involved in the video of Eric Garner’s death to be indicted was the man who recorded the video of the incident. Though his indictment was not related to the filming, he fears that guards will poison his food at Rikers Prison, just as is alleged by 19 other inmates there. The man who filmed the killing of Walter Scott told the Washington Post that he kept the footage secret for days, fearing for his life, but ultimately decided to let the video out because of how different it was from how police described the incident.

As always, know your rights when filming or photographing police. And even if you believe you’re in the right, if the situation turns dangerous and a police officer threatens you, it’s best not to escalate the situation with a discussion of your rights. Nevertheless, here are some good guides regarding photography and the police in the US: 7 Rules for Recording the Police and the ACLU’s various links regarding police and photography.

UPDATE (13 April 2015): The Texas bill to limit recording of police activity has been dropped. The sponsoring politician cited large public outcry as a reason for withdrawing the bill.

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