With the proliferation of video cameras in phones and MP3 players, capturing an event on video has never been easier.
The tools are now pocket sized, creating a new wrinkle in how we’re interacting with everything around us, including the police. While cops started arming themselves with vehicle-mounted cameras over a decade ago, only recently have we seen citizen-police interaction from this new perspective.
Is it legal? The official answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it will win you any points with a police officer. Is it smart? Well, we’ll get to that.
No Expectation Of Privacy
As for why it’s legal to video your own traffic stop, the law focuses on the fact that it’s happening in public. Joseph Ejbeh, a practicing attorney working in Rochester Hills, Michigan, explained the notion of assumed privacy.
“When you’re in a public place, there’s no expectation of privacy,” Ejbeh said. “It’s public. It’s out in the open. Anything happening in public is fair game to video. That includes a traffic stop.”
AOL Autos interviewed lawyers who explained to us that laws regulating the recording of video and audio in public places differ by state. Generally there are only narrow restrictions that can include, for example, when a videographer might be disturbing the peace or interfering with police activities.
Though everything stated above is true I look at filming police from a different perspective or any public official for that matter. When filming an individual who’s job isn’t funded by tax dollars I always ask their permission, even in public where they have no expectation of privacy. For the ‘public servant’ who voluntarily choose their job, I never ask. As long as their at work performing a job that is paid for by tax dollars then I believe it’s our right to film them. There is something seriously wrong if your city/state has a law against it. What do they have to hide?
Government, through public officials, has a great amount of influence in our lives and it’s nearly impossible to hold these people accountable; without video proof. The camera doesn’t lie and therefore is our greatest asset in getting accountability. So what do the police think about being filmed? AOL autos asked a few cops their thoughts.
Police: On Video
So what do the police think of camera-wielding citizens? Most police departments do not have official policies on the issue. This makes an officer’s response to a video camera up to the discretion of the individual officer.
“I’ve had several citizens video their traffic stops,” said Los Angeles Police Department Officer Clarence Williams. “It hasn’t been a problem for me except for when they shove the camera in my face. If they’re respectful, everything goes fine.
“I recently stopped a young man who was making a video for a film class at school. He [videotaped] the entire process. I understood what he was doing and that it wasn’t a dangerous or adversarial situation.”
Others cite the need for officer safety. Cops don’t like anything pointed directly at them, even if it’s just a lens.
“I don’t mind if a citizen has a video camera, but for me it becomes an issue of officer safety,” said Detroit area Officer Frank Zielinski. “I don’t like to have a citizen with something in their hands that they’re pointing at me. Officers are trained to be very wary about what a person has in their hands. If we let our guard down for a second, we could miss seeing a weapon.”
Zielinski explained that some cameras have been known to conceal guns.
“If somebody wants to video their traffic stop, that’s totally within their rights,” said Zielinkski. “The truth is that we’re already on video. I’ve got a video camera running in the patrol car and I’m wired with a microphone. For a nominal fee, people can come to the station to request a video of their traffic stop, no problem. As for them holding their own camera, I’d rather they put it up on the dash so that their hands are empty.”
While more municipalities are deploying in-car camera systems for their police departments, budget constraints have prevented major cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit from having cameras in all patrol cars.
An issue of safety? OH please, am I the only one sick of this argument? According to the Daily Beast police rank #12 on their Top 20 Most Dangerous jobs. Even though police have a higher salary (double in most cases) than 8 of the top 10. A farmer, logger and roofer (which I’ve done, so dangerous) have more dangerous jobs than police officers. At least the police can say they have guns, body armor and back up; paid for by others.
I was shocked that other officers used the ‘cameras can conceal guns’ defense when really it’s just about being on camera. I was arrested in Mississippi for filming police officers and that officer told me, after I was under arrest, that my camera might be a gun. LOL. Had it every occurred to police officers to ask? Had the officer asked me or drawn his weapon on me, I would of gladly shown him my camera. Also most cameras, like mine, are too small to hold a gun. So all I have to say is FAIL… not buying it. The ratio of real cameras to fake ones containing guns has to be a million to one.
Then the focus turns to Lawyers:
Lawyers: On Video
“While it is legal, to hold a camera in anybody’s face — including a police officer’s — could be construed as really offensive,” said attorney Matt Walton of Mt. Clemens, Michigan. “I’d recommend people think about what they’re doing and consider the police officer’s point of view before they whip out a video camera.”
Walton brought up several points to ponder. While it is legal to record a traffic stop, the citizen must obey an officer’s legitimate commands. If you are told to put the camera down, it’s wise to follow that advice or you could be arrested for interfering with an officer in the line of duty.
Walton further notes that if you hope to use your video to beat your ticket, you must have recorded the ticketable offense to prove your point. Just recording the stop won’t help. “What matters to the judge is whether you did what you’re accused of, not what happened after,” said Walton.
As a matter of act, videoing your traffic stop might make things worse for you. Walton opined, “Recording a police officer will not likely result in a ‘Better slow it down and have a nice day’ warning. The officer is likely to write you up for every possible infraction.” The lawyer then referenced a recent incident in Michigan’s Oakland Country where an officer gave a county executive a break during a traffic stop. The officer was subsequently disciplined for abusing his discretion when the details of the stop — and the breaks — were made public.
Another suburban Detroit officer agreed to talk to AOL on the condition of anonymity due to a pending lawsuit that tangentially involves this issue. This 33-year veteran confirmed Walton’s assumption. He told AOL, “If somebody is going to come at me with an attitude and a camera, I’m going to do everything exactly by the book. They won’t get one single break. I’ve had it happen a few times and because I’m being [videotaped], I professionally follow the letter of the law.”
Remember: the letter of the law doesn’t spell out giving breaks.
Isn’t this all that people who film police want? For police to act professionally instead of the endless questions and prying into our lives. If an officer fails to use discretion or do what’s right due to a camera so be it. Without the camera (and all to often with it) the officer will trick you with questions, lie to you and violate your rights looking for anything to ticket you for. A ticket (you were most likely going to get anyways) is a small price to pay (if you pay it) when it’s a proven fact that officers will think twice about their actions while on video. Which could save you from receiving the business end of their tasers.
Making The Decision
“Over the years I’ve worked for government prosecutors and I’ve observed that police officers are overwhelmingly good people who follow the rules,” said Walton. “But video can be used to document abuses that occur.”
Should you or shouldn’t you? That’s a judgment call you’re going to have to make. But if you do, know that your chances of receiving a speeding warning drop significantly.
If you do videotape the police publicly acting in an unlawful manner, it is not legal for those police officers to make you delete the files or confiscate your video device. If such a request or threat is made, you have a valid reason to make an official complaint against the officers involved.
Overall there are some good points made in the article but it still favors the police. To say filming police will decrease your chances of receiving a warning or that an officer might throw the book at you is a scare tactic. Your chances of receiving a warning are significantly less the minute the lights go on, who are we kidding? Better safe than sorry, which is what you’ll be if you have no proof to back your claims of police brutality.