USA Today became the latest mainstream media publication to address the alarming and increasing trend of police officers using wiretapping laws to arrest citizens who videotape them.
Like The Washington Post did in an editorial last month, the second-most circulated newspaper in the country denounced these actions as a violation of citizens’ rights.
The USA Today editorial also linked to Photography is Not a Crime, which means I should expect a steady stream of new readers today.
This is an abuse of prosecutorial authority and a misinterpretation of state law. But it’s typical of the attitude of too many prosecutors and police toward people who record their encounters with law enforcement and are usually completely within their rights to do so.
Websites that monitor these cases have posted stories from around the country of police ordering people to stop videotaping or photographing them, sometimes violently. Most of the time, the police apparently either don’t understand the law or are deliberately misstating it to bully people into putting away their cameras or cellphones.
The editorial is titled “When citizens film police, it shouldn’t be a crime.” The USA Today editorial board also allowed a couple of high-ranking police officers to provide an opposing view titled “Respect officers’ rights.”
In that piece, two cops from the International Union of Police Associations make a laughable attempt in declaring that police officers are the victims in these cases, not citizens.
Dennis J. Slocumb and Rich Roberts dish out a sob story that they have to violate citizens’ First Amendment rights because they have been stripped of that privilege themselves.
Much is said about First Amendment rights regarding the videotaping of police officers. While officers often have legitimate complaints about misuse of video tapes, we are still sensitive to the right granted under the First Amendment. That’s because we don’t always enjoy that right.
If we make a statement contrary to what a commander thinks, we may face subtle but onerous retaliation in our workplace. It may be a demotion, a negative evaluation, days off without pay or a transfer to less than desirable duty.
The above statement reveals just how ignorant some officers can be. The fact is, nobody has absolute Freedom of Speech in the workplace.
If you make a statement contrary to what your boss thinks, you may also face subtle but onerous retaliation in the workplace. You may also get a demotion, negative evaluation, days off without pay or a transfer to a less than desirable duty.
Hell, you may also get fired, which is not a problem most officers will have to face for simply having a different opinion than their commander.
Chances are, you won’t have a powerful union defending you at all costs. And there won’t be any federal or state laws protecting you from getting fired over a disagreement with the boss.
So these two cops are wrong in saying they have less Freedom of Speech than the rest of us. Their baseless editorial proves that even cop gibberish is protected speech.
Slocumb and Roberts justify these arrests of videographers by reminding us they have a dangerous job that can occasionally put them in the line of fire.
Officers have no choice but to make decisions based upon split-second determinations coupled with their training and experience. Out of approximately 400,000 men and women who regularly patrol the streets and highways (we are not counting an additional 400,000 who have purely administrative assignments) an average of 160 will be killed, 60,000 will be physically assaulted and 20,000 will receive serious injuries in the line of duty every year.
I could understand that argument if we were pointing guns at them instead of cameras. The fact is, they chose the job knowing the dangers it entails. In many cases, the adrenaline rush and unpredictability is what drove them to that job in the same way it did to many journalists.
But they also swore an oath to protect and serve the public and to uphold and enforce our laws. Not to twist them to their liking.
The two officers continue their argument by stating that it is not fair to videotape officers conducting their duties in public because most of us are too dumb to understand what’s going on since we’re not seeing it “through the prism of experience and training.”
Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see.
Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.
We know what occurred before Maryland State Trooper Joseph Uhler pulled a gun on Anthony Graber. Graber was speeding. And he popped a few wheelies.
We know what occurred before Prince George’s County cops ganged up on University of Maryland student Jack McKenna and beat him unconscious. McKenna was dancing in the streets celebrating a basketball victory.
We know what occurred before New York City police officer Patrick Pogan (who won’t be sentenced to prison or probation, we learned today) body-slammed Christopher Long off his bicycle during a critical mass in Times Square. Long tried to swerve to avoid hitting Pogan.
And more importantly, we know what would have happened in all of these cases if it weren’t for the video camera. We would have ended up with a completely different version of the truth.
And when it comes down to it, that is what police fear the most.