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.