September 21, 2012


For Cops, More Cameras A Double-Edged Sword

Provide Evidence of Abuses


PATRICK J. LYNCH: With selective editing, camera can lie.     

PATRICK J. LYNCH: With selective editing, camera can lie.


Police have used the growth of cameras on public streets to better fight crime, but with the proliferation of smart phones and other hand-held video devices, cops often find themselves in situations embodied by a famous TV slogan of the 1960s: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”

“Police can expect that increasingly what they do will be captured on videotape,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor and NYPD officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Started With Rodney King

Amateur filming of police officers around the country has become much more common since 1991, when a Los Angeles man standing on the balcony of his apartment taped several officers beating motorist Rodney King after a high-speed chase. Two officers were convicted of Federal civil-rights violations and sent to prison.

Sometimes the activity filmed is unremarkable. Sometimes it looks bad but is actually justified by circumstances. (“When you use force on people, it never looks good,” Mr. O’Donnell said.) Sometimes the videos show conduct at issue with the officers’ later statements about what occurred.

The issue gained new currency in New York after a Bronx 19-year-old sued the city last week, citing a 46-second video of police apparently beating him that a neighbor filmed through a window.

Such filming is totally legal, unless, as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch noted, the person using the camera actually interferes with police officers.

“In terms of filming the police, in our society, people have a clear right to document police activity in public places,” said Jennifer Carnig, a spokeswoman for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This right is especially important when it comes to documenting police interactions with community members.”

Not to Worry?

“I think generally New York City police don’t have a lot to worry about concerning cell-phone cameras,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Mr. Lynch said officers recognize that such filming is “the reality of the world,” with cameras on buildings and so many people having cell phones that include cameras. He said officers have been observed in action for years and “this is one more layer of that.”

Officers have no problems with people recording them “as long as the person taking the film is doing it fairly,” he said. “They have to know what happened prior to this incident. For it to be fair, you have to have the whole story.”

An example of unfairness would be a situation in which police are filmed struggling to subdue and arrest a man who before the filming started had violently assaulted someone, the PBA said.

Keep Some Distance

Those taping police activity should be careful not to get close enough to interfere with the officers, Mr. Lynch said. “That takes the police officer’s focus off keeping control of the situation. Now he has two situations to deal with. That makes our job much more difficult.”

He noted that some people who tape officers “have an agenda” of making the police look bad or inflaming others observing the situation. The videos are “often edited,” he said. “Only the portion that tells the false story is posted.”

When amateur filmmakers do interfere with police, Mr. O’Donnell said, they can be charged with obstructing governmental administration or disorderly conduct.

In New York, there have been a handful of cases of cops caught in embarrassing situations on amateur video. One was Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who was transferred after he was filmed at an Occupy Wall Street protest last fall shooting pepper spray at several women standing peacefully inside a police barricade. Many OWS participants took videos of police actions they considered questionable.

In another case, rookie Police Officer Patrick Pogan resigned after he was caught on camera apparently tackling a Critical Mass rider passing on a bicycle. Mr. Pogan was criminally convicted of falsifying a police report, but a judge gave him no punishment.

Sergeant’s Tirade Unpunished

A Sergeant in Brooklyn was taped in April cursing some neighborhood n’er-do-wells. The department did not criticize his actions or announce any discipline.

The NYCLU, a frequent critic of the way the NYPD employs stop-and-frisk, released an app a few months ago that allows Android phone users to film such incidents and transmit them to the organization.

“More than 10,000 New York City residents have the NYCLU’s Stop and Frisk Watch app on their phones, and we’ve received thousands of videos from people across the city that our lawyers are reviewing,” Ms. Carnig said. “Our companion iPhone app will be out later this fall, and we’re excited for how that will amplify the ability for people in the city to document any police abuses they see.”

Sometimes people record police interactions with little thought to their own safety. When officers with drawn guns backed a man with a knife several blocks down the street below Times Square last month before shooting him, people taking cell-phone videos surrounded them like flies.

The issue of filming cops is not restricted to New York. In Los Angeles, two officers were caught on video slamming to the ground a woman they had stopped for talking on her cell phone while driving, then fist-bumping each other as they put her in their car. A campus officer at the University of California at Davis was filmed walking along a row of peacefully-seated protesters and squirting pepper spray in their faces.

A California jury acquitted a 19-year-old charged with gun possession after a video showed him standing by a wall until sheriff’s deputies fetched him, not running and tossing a loaded revolver onto a roof as the deputies had charged.

Police attempts to control such filming have been generally unsuccessful. In Illinois, a Federal appeals court ruled recently that a state law prohibiting videotaping of anyone without their permission did not apply to recordings of police officers.

16 Years for Filming?

In Maryland, a man posted a video of a state trooper flashing a gun after stopping him for speeding. The man was charged with breaking the state’s wiretapping law. He could have been sentenced to up to 16 years in prison if convicted, but a judge dismissed the charges.

There are times when cameras help the cops. The NYPD has stitched together thousands of cameras put up by police and by private property-owners into Lower Manhattan and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiatives. The cameras look for possible evidence of terrorism such as suspicious license plates or cars behaving in a questionable manner.

They can also be used to zero in on areas where a crime has taken place. Police last month announced the Domain Awareness System, a joint NYPD-Microsoft project that marries camera feeds with police databases. Cameras are also deployed in the subways, in housing projects and in similar locations.