Officer Alex on the pros and cons of you filming the police.
Last week, something miraculous happened: Nine different people in Washington, D.C., agreed on the same thing.
They even wrote down their conclusions in a document titled “Riley vs. California.” It’s a bit of a dry read, but to those of us in the law enforcement business it’s a pretty big deal. Yet, the reason I’m writing this is that to most of the cops I know? It isn’t. (Give me a second before you post this “like” to the “CopBlock” Facebook page.)
This ruling deals with the constitutionality of going through someone’s cell phone after their arrest, or more specifically, the fact that it isn’t constitutional, according to the Supremes. In all honesty, I can’t think of a local case where this was done, but the fact that it went to the Supreme Court indicates it was happening elsewhere.
Why did my co-workers and I avoid this? Because it’s an extremely stupid shortcut to take for something that you know with complete certainty will ruin your case, your reputation, and set the bad guy free. Hence, it is avoided as a rule. Literally.
Like the ruling stated in several different ways, we can get a warrant pretty damn quickly and we do so quite frequently when it’s warranted. Making what is indeed a gold mine of information useless is just bad business—but apparently not everyone across the country got that memo.
There is no ambiguity with this decision. It was unanimous. Yet discussion about this case led to another topic with a friend of mine. “What if I’m just standing around,” he said, “not in any way in the way and videotaping you. What is your personal stance on somebody filming you in action?” (Arrest, he confided, seemed to be a common reason for police to access someone’s phone.)
I was annoyed at the implication, but my annoyance wasn’t the point. “First,” I told him, “if you record something and it happens to be the continuance of a crime, it would make that phone evidence of such and it could be subject to being added to the case file. That is, if you record a crime the device becomes evidence. The courts agree.” His jaw clenched slightly.
“That’s just a possibility though, and that’s not what you’re asking.” I paused. “What you’re asking is how I feel about being videotaped.” He nodded.
“I have nothing to hide and never have,” I said. “In fact, somewhere on us is a transmitter where we record you and ourselves both, usually with a digital camera based in our car. It’s not about being afraid of being videotaped.” His eyes said I was making a point. “We tape ourselves constantly.
“The problem with you taping us is it’s a freakin’ DISTRACTION of what is generally a fairly serious situation. You are dividing the cops’ attention and exponentially worsening the situation for your own gratification.” He was about to respond when I interrupted.
“Yes, if it’s in public you have absolutely every right to record something. I’m a huge fan of the Constitution and it shows in my work. That’s what you tell yourself to justify the distraction, but no matter how you paint it, what you’re really doing in those situations is distracting the shit out of someone who now doesn’t just have to worry about their own safety, the safety of everyone around, the bad guy, and has a loaded gun on their hip,” I said, “now they also have to worry about you entering the situation and making it officially impossible to concentrate on anything other than increased blood pressure, adrenaline, and the likelihood of something going very, very bad because the knob has just been turned from 5 to 11.
“You have every right to film,” I explained, “just know that all you’re doing is very likely making what may not have been a bad situation worse, with the quite possible intent of profiting from it, which I think is kind of shitty.”
I saw my acquaintance consider a reply, but in the end I think the point was made and the topic was changed yet a third time—to the subject of food.
We are one of the most visible professions in the world so hiding things is not something that we are readily able to do, but mistakes are made from time to time. The Supreme Court addressed one of those. That said? This court ruling won’t change business in my office because that’s not how my office runs.
I don’t kid myself about the realities about my job…I just ask that you don’t kid yourself, either. (If you’re the one filming, of course.)