Recording the Police
I’ve written a lot on the “War on Photography,” where normal people are harassed as potential terrorists for taking pictures of things in public. This article is different; it’s about recording the police:
Allison’s predicament is an extreme example of a growing and disturbing trend. As citizens increase their scrutiny of law enforcement officials through technologies such as cell phones, miniature cameras, and devices that wirelessly connect to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak, the cops are increasingly fighting back with force and even jail time—and not just in Illinois. Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue. Meanwhile, technology is enabling the kind of widely distributed citizen documentation that until recently only spy novelists dreamed of. The result is a legal mess of outdated, loosely interpreted statutes and piecemeal court opinions that leave both cops and citizens unsure of when recording becomes a crime.
This is all important. Being able to record the police is one of the best ways to ensure that the police are held accountable for their actions. Privacy has to be viewed in the context of relative power. For example, the government has a lot more power than the people. So privacy for the government increases their power and increases the power imbalance between government and the people; it decreases liberty. Forced openness in government—open government laws, Freedom of Information Act filings, the recording of police officers and other government officials, WikiLeaks—reduces the power imbalance between government and the people, and increases liberty.
Privacy for the people increases their power. It also increases liberty, because it reduces the power imbalance between government and the people. Forced openness in the people—NSA monitoring of everyone’s phone calls and e-mails, the DOJ monitoring everyone’s credit card transactions, surveillance cameras—decreases liberty.
I think we need a law that explicitly makes it legal for people to record government officials when they are interacting with them in their official capacity. And this is doubly true for police officers and other law enforcement officials.
EDITED TO ADD: Anthony Graber, the Maryland motorcyclist in the article, had all the wiretapping charges cleared.
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