Crime hard to find in video recording
Published: Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.
'You Have Every Right to Photograph That Cop" claims a headline on an article at an American Civil Liberties Union website. But can you, really?
The ACLU cites court decisions to back up the stance that, in public places, you can photograph or videotape anyone. News photographers and tourists have long done it. Public servants are not any more exempt than the rest of us.
And the ACLU explains the obvious reasons why it should remain legal to capture images showing police at work -- whether at their best or worst -- especially now that police make such widespread use of cameras to watch others.
Video of arrests often show that accusations against police are wrong, or over-hyped. And, in other cases, law enforcement agencies should be just as glad to get videos that show cops behaving badly. They want to know about that stuff, too, right?
Still, it is a rare person, cop or not, who feels totally at ease with a camera focused on their every move. It isn't hard to understand that North Port Police officers doing a traffic stop could have felt bothered by a bystander with a camera phone.
I just can't see how their feelings can possibly justify arresting that man, as happened in January.
Problem is, such arrests or threats of arrest happen all too frequently, in Florida and elsewhere. And no matter how often cases are dismissed, that isn't stopping officers from arresting people or bullying them to turn cameras off.
Ironically, most of the video that computer technician Steve Horrigan got in January while watching a traffic stop in North Port is as exciting as watching a faucet drip. The only interesting part is when officers talked to Horrigan.
The first time, an officer told him to move farther away. He did, and I thought both men acted just fine. "You can take video and pictures if you feel it's necessary. It's a free world," the officer said.
Not so much, it turned out. When Horrigan later moved to tape a drug-sniffing dog, the police response changed. An officer walked over and told Horrigan that "it's illegal to videotape us."
As I heard that claim on Horrigan's now-public recording, Horrigan was totally correct to respond that there was no such law. The officer insisted otherwise.
Horrigan gave his name on request, and his address, but kept his camera on. Within seconds he was under arrest. As a later news story reported, there was nothing even vaguely like the "approximately 10-15" warnings the officer claims he gave Horrigan.
That's a detail that may not matter. Horrigan understood the warning he got. But it once again shows how different reality can be from eye-witness memories and accounts, including those from law officers.
And that's exactly why it is so often valuable to have video, and audio, of crimes and police actions.
Incredibly enough, some states now are trying to call it a crime to video-record cops. It would be better to pass laws welcoming it.
But no matter what that North Port officer claimed, there is no such law in Florida. To come up with something to pin on Horrigan, police charged him with illegal eavesdropping. Huh?
It has long been illegal in Florida to record conversations without the knowledge of all being recorded. But Horrigan wasn't at all secretive, nor did his camera catch any conversations aside from the ones police had with him.
And, can you really eavesdrop on words directed at you by police? "That's a decision really for the state attorney," said North Port Police spokesman Robert Estrada.
He said various lawyers and outside advisers have given the department conflicting advice of late. But the department's aim isn't preventing video recording of police, he told me. The hope is only to prevent people from recording or listening in on police conversations not intended to be public.
If so, Horrigan's video and audio recording will be strong evidence that he was innocent of that.
If prosecutors decide the charge won't stand up in court, Estrada said, "they'll probably tell us why" and "we would have a little workshop here" to make sure officers understand the law.
Maybe the more camera-shy officers could also be reminded that as long as they are doing their jobs properly, citizens with video cameras can be their best allies.
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