DOJ Reminds Baltimore Police that yes, they can be recordedBaltimore has become a bit infamous among advocates of accountability, thanks to how its police force handles video recording. The Maryland city seems to believe that citizens don’t have the right to record the police there, and that destroying the recordings is par for the course.
Now the Department of Justice has sent a letter to Baltimore reminding them that citizens are, in fact, allowed to record police. They reprimanded the city’s police management for not supporting that right in a strongly worded letter this Monday.
The government seems to be taking a stronger stand on these issues, and the letter comes after the settlement of a case involving the harassment and detention of a man named Christopher Sharp.
In 2010 Sharp recorded a video of Maryland police beating a friend of his. The arresting officers didn’t take too kindly to that, opting to seize his cellphone, delete all video of the incident, and then arrest him.
there was no case against Sharp, however, as Maryland has a policy that instructs police officers to let alone those who record them, unless they are actively violating a law (recording officers is not a crime in most places, though there are a few around the country that has banned it under wiretapping legislation). In fact, the US DOJ sees blocking the recording of officers as encroachment on a US citizen’s right to record in public places, and therefore a serious crime.
The BPD have been using legal loopholes to threaten and prosecute those recording them. For example, another man was harassed for loitering when he was recording the police during an arrest.
The BPD has supposedly been trained about public recording and a citizen’s right to it, but it hasn’t seemed to abate the incidents. In fact, it lead Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), to comment:
"I found it very interesting when on that Saturday, the next day, there was another incident with police disrupting someone's recording... I was wondering whether they had actually spent that time training the officers on new ways to circumvent the public being allowed to record them."The DOJ’s 11-page document might call Baltimore out specifically, but the language applies to all US cities. It explicitly states that it
"also reflects the United States' position on the basic elements of a constitutionally adequate policy on individuals' right to record police activity."While Baltimore might still be a problem, the government’s focus on the issue is a good sign. Recordings of police abuses of power are some of the few ways in which we can hold them responsible.
"policies should affirmatively set forth the contours of individuals' First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties,"said the document, and "the right is firmly rooted in long-standing First Amendment principles." It further exands on the concept by saying "the press does not have a monopoly on either the First Amendment or the ability to enlighten," concluding that
"this principle is particularly important in the current age where widespread access to recording devices and online media have provided private individuals with the capacity to gather and disseminate newsworthy information."