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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Policing the Police - Citizen Video Footage

by: Wayland Radin, MTTLR Associate Editor

As the ubiquity of Apple’s iPhone constantly reminds us, cellular phone technology has progressed to the point that its hard to find a phone that doesn’t have a camera. While remarkable footage has infrequently reached the public eye in the past, the omnipresence, simplicity, and unobtrusive nature of these cameras, coupled with the means to make their recordings immediately and publicly available (e.g. YouTube, Flickr) has led to a new method of citizen oversight of public servants.

The vast majority of the recordings made publicly available in this way chronicle what the owner of the camera phone believes to be suspect actions of law enforcement officers. For instance, the now infamous tasering of University of Florida student at a political forum has been viewed well over 3 million times.

A similar incident in which a UCLA student was tazed for apparently failing to exit a University library quickly enough has been viewed upwards of 2 million times (in various YouTube iterations.)

(See the Daily Bruin article detailing the event.)

Though the potential effects of this mode of citizen oversight are far-reaching, they are felt most directly by the owner of the camera and the subject of the recording. In Oregon, several citizens have been ticketed or arrested for recording the activities of on-duty police officers, under a state law allowing audio recording only if at least one party is aware of the recording. The man who was ticketed (and who filmed the video below) is now challenging the actions of the police department in a lawsuit.

And in New York, a police officer was stripped of his badge and remains under investigation for actions recorded in this video.

While it may seem obvious that one should have the right to record what one would otherwise see and hear in public, the law is far from settled on the matter. It is unclear what expectation of privacy on-duty police offers might have, if any, given that they are performing a civic service in public. Police officers, however, clearly have an interest in their safety and so have argued that recording of police activity poses a threat to the officers themselves.

Because the current laws are unclear and inconsistent, as is their enforcement, I think more comprehensive regulation is likely. I would hope that this future regulation will explicitly allow citizens to record public servants performing their duties. There will, of course, be some caveats to protect the privacy of off-duty officers and the safety of all those involved, but on the whole I think we will (and should) see more instead of less citizen oversight enhanced by technology.

ETA:For further information on citizen media activism, visit the Citizen Media Law Project

ETA2:YouTube and PBS Vote 2008 have partnered to create the Video Your Vote initiative. They encourage voters to take and share video of their voting experiences, another opportunity for tech-assisted citizen oversight of government activities. Here's an overview:


Blogger mycroft said...


Interesting post. There are a few problems with a lot of the "citizen oversight" videos that I've seen. They often start after the action leading up to the incident has taken place, which tends toward a one-sided view in favor of the alleged victim. Also, the person filming usually isn't exactly Martin Scorsese, so there may be critical bits that are obscured or missing.

I think that more oversight is usually better, and some of the incidents are pretty sick, but this sort of footage might tend to foster an even more negative view of law enforcement in the general public. Maybe this is a good thing, I don't know. But I do know that when videos begin by showing some kid in a library getting tased without context, I begin to think that the state laws trying to control these videos might be justified. After all, people don't tape a cop when he's just pulled off a wicked clean traffic stop.

Mostly, though, I'm just playing Devil's Advocate here. (Insert pic of Homer Simpson playing Devil's Advocate, the pinball machine.)

October 15, 2008 at 2:50 AM  
Blogger Wayland said...

You're absolutely right in that most of the available videos depict (or are meant to depict) negative actions taken by law enforcement. And I agree that these types of videos further the often negative view the public holds of law enforcement. I think, therefore, that law enforcement agencies are given a good incentive to become more open rather than more restrictive. That is, there is nothing preventing them from posting their own videos of "wicked clean" traffic stops. It is likely that not many would take notice of the positive actions recorded in this manner (its hard to get the public to pay attention to mundane, even if positive, things), but it would allow the agency to combat the negative press they receive. As it stands, if only egregious acts are recorded, and in a potentially biased style, a regulatory crackdown just paints the agencies in an even worse light, as they may be taken to having admitted "we do so many bad things that we can't let anyone see what we do." If, on the other hand, the agencies move towards openness, they're giving the chance to show that while they face some problems (as do all large organizations) that those problems are both rare and being addressed.

October 15, 2008 at 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simple, police need 'helmet cams' like they have in England. Then they not only have dash cams, but they have the foot patrol video as well. Then there is continuous footage, and both sides are "spoken" for.

December 17, 2008 at 3:14 PM  

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