The big news out of Ferguson this week is that the United States Department of Justice released a report clearing officer Darren Wilson of civil rights violations in the shooting death of Michael Brown, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the feds stated in January they were unlikely to find any wrongdoing on his part.
However, the USDOJ also released an accompanying report stating that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violates the civil rights of citizens, especially black people.
And especially when it comes to recording police in public.
And that shouldn’t surprise anybody considering not only did a video emerge last year showing Wilson arresting a man for video recording him, Ferguson police (along with police from other local agencies) routinely arrested citizens for recording them during the protests following the shooting.
Not even a court order last November forbidding police from arresting people for recording did anything to curb the behavior of the St. Louis County Police Department, which had taken over most of the protest operations because they were considered more professional and experienced than the Ferguson Police Department, did anything to curb these arrests.
What is surprising is that the USDOJ gave the impression that the Ferguson Police Department was unique in this regard, somehow different from other law enforcement agencies in the country.
Sure, they may be more racist than your average department as detailed in the report, an overwhelming white police department patrolling an overwhelming black community, but when it comes to violating the rights of citizens to record police, the Ferguson Police Department is a microcosm of law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
After all, no matter how many so-called “scathing reports” published by the USDOJ about police departments in this country, if the cops who violate the rights of citizens are not disciplined, nothing will ever change.
In this case, the cops who did the violating were not even named in the detailed 102-page report, so the USDOJ did its part on maintaining the blue line.
The Ferguson Police Department did fire one employee and suspended two others for racist emails uncovered by the USDOJ, but nothing will be done about the cops who continually violated the First Amendment rights of citizens to record despite the fact the USDOJ made it clear in 2012 that this should not be tolerated.
According to the most report on Ferguson (starting on page 24):
FPD officers also routinely infringe on the public’s First Amendment rights by preventing people from recording their activities. The First Amendment “prohibit[s] the government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Belloti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978). Applying this principle, the federal courts of appeal have held that the First Amendment “unambiguously” establishes a constitutional right to videotape police activities. Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 82 (1st Cir. 2011); see also ACLU v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583, 600 (7th Cir. 2012) (issuing a preliminary injunction against the use of a state eavesdropping statute to prevent the recording of public police activities); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir. 1995) (recognizing a First Amendment right to film police carrying out their public duties); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir. 2000) (recognizing a First Amendment right “to photograph or videotape police conduct”). Indeed, as the ability to record police activity has become more widespread, the role it can play in capturing questionable police activity, and ensuring that the activity is investigated and subject to broad public debate, has become clear. Protecting civilian recording of police activity is thus at the core of speech the First Amendment is intended to protect. Cf. Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681 (1972) (First Amendment protects “news gathering”); Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966) (news gathering enhances “free discussion of governmental affairs”). “In a democracy, public officials have no general privilege to avoid publicity and embarrassment by preventing public scrutiny of their actions.” Walker v. City of Pine Bluff, 414 F.3d 989, 992 (8th Cir. 2005).
In Ferguson, however, officers claim without any factual support that the use of camera phones endangers officer safety. Sometimes, officers offer no rationale at all. Our conversations with community members and review of FPD records found numerous violations of the right to record police activity. In May 2014, an officer pulled over an African-American woman who was driving with her two sons. During the traffic stop, the woman’s 16-year-old son began recording with his cell phone. The officer ordered him to put down the phone and refrain from using it for the remainder of the stop. The officer claimed this was “for safety reasons.” The situation escalated, apparently due to the officer’s rudeness and the woman’s response. According to the 16 year old, he began recording again, leading the officer to wrestle the phone from him. Additional officers arrived and used force to arrest all three civilians under disputed circumstances that could have been clarified by a video recording.
In June 2014, an African-American couple who had taken their children to play at the park allowed their small children to urinate in the bushes next to their parked car. An officer stopped them, threatened to cite them for allowing the children to “expose themselves,” and checked the father for warrants. When the mother asked if the officer had to detain the father in front of the children, the officer turned to the father and said, “you’re going to jail because your wife keeps running her mouth.” The mother then began recording the officer on her cell phone. The officer became irate, declaring, “you don’t videotape me!” As the officer drove away with the father in custody for “parental neglect,” the mother drove after them, continuing to record. The officer then pulled over and arrested her for traffic violations. When the father asked the officer to show mercy, he responded, “no more mercy, since she wanted to videotape,” and declared “nobody videotapes me.” The officer then took the phone, which the couple’s daughter was holding. After posting bond, the couple found that the video had been deleted.
A month later, the same officer pulled over a truck hauling a trailer that did not have operating tail lights. The officer asked for identification from all three people inside, including a 54-year-old white man in the passenger seat who asked why. “You have to have a reason. This is a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights,” he asserted. The officer, who characterized the man’s reaction as “suspicious,” responded, “the reason is, if you don’t hand it to me, I’ll arrest you.” The man provided his identification. The officer then asked the man to move his cell phone from his lap to the dashboard, “for my safety.” The man said, “okay, but I’m going to record this.” Due to nervousness, he could not open the recording application and quickly placed the phone on the dash. The officer then announced that the man was under arrest for Failure to Comply. At the end of the traffic stop, the officer gave the driver a traffic citation, indicated at the other man, and said, “you’re getting this ticket because of him.” Upon bringing that man to the jail, someone asked the officer what offense the man had committed. The officer responded, “he’s one of those guys who watches CNBC too much about his rights.” The man did not say anything else, fearing what else the officer might be capable of doing. He later told us, “I never dreamed I could end up in jail for this. I’m scared of driving through Ferguson now.”
Anybody who follows this site knows that the Ferguson Police Department is hardly alone in preventing citizens from recording, using the overused excuse of “officer safety” to suppress the rights of citizens. But despite what many Americans believe and despite what the courts and cops will tell you, officer safety should not trump citizen safety.
And the best way to ensure citizen safety at a time when police in this country have killed 187 citizens since January 1, 2015 – an average of almost three people per day – is to record every interaction.
After all, only one on-duty cop has been intentionally killed by a citizen this year, a Fulton County Sheriff’s Detective named Terence Avery Green, who was killed earlier today after responding to a call of shots fired, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which keeps track of these statistics.
And that suspect, Amanual Menghesha, was carrying an “assault rifle type” who took aim at two officers from a concealed position. Had he taken aim with a camera, Green would still be alive today.