There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night. Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars. Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today. The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities. One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect. Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.
Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson. Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later. The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now. Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.
At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point. Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.
A settlement in Baltimore may clear the way for citizens to more freely exercise one of their First Amendment rights — in this case, their right to take photographs.
The Baltimore case arose from an increasingly common incident. The police were making an arrest, and a citizen was recording the events on his cell phone. A police officer told him to turn off the cell phone camera, claiming it was illegal to make such a recording. It isn’t, but the officers then took the citizen’s cell phone and deleted his recordings — including some personal recordings. He sued, and ultimately the City of Baltimore decided to settle. Part of the settlement is the establishment of new rules and policies governing the behavior of police officers who are being recorded by video. The general rule of thumb in the new policy is that, if a citizen is in a place where they have a right to be, they can take photographs and make recordings — and police officers can’t interfere, intimidate, or confiscate the cameras.
Police officers have been skittish about being photographed since the videotape of police officers beating Rodney King sparked riots. All too often, their response has been to attempt to bully the people taking the photographs, even when those people are acting lawfully and aren’t interfering with police activities. If the Baltimore settlement causes other governmental entities to adopt similar codes of conduct, it would be a great step forward.
Our cell phone cameras are a powerful tool to protect the population against police misconduct — and, for that matter, against other forms of improper governmental actions as well. Once police officers and other public employees realize that their activities may be recorded and then posted to YouTube or some other website, they may temper their excesses and take extra care to make sure that their conduct conforms to law and departmental policy. That’s a good thing for everyone, police included.