July 15th, 2010

USA Today denounces wiretapping arrests; Cops offer flimsy argument 0

By Carlos Miller

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.

July 14th, 2010

Woman calls cops to report prowler; gets tasered repeatedly on video 0

By Carlos Miller

Janice Wells called police after hearing what she thought was a prowler outside her rural Georgia home.

The third-grade teacher ended up getting tortured by two officers who tasered and peppered-sprayed her continuously.

All because she refused to provide officers with the name of her friend who had just left her home.

The horrifying incident, which can be seen in the above video, was caught on one of the officer’s dash cams.

Although both officers lost their jobs over the incident, one of the officers is already working as a deputy in a neighboring county.

Ryan Smith, the  22-year-old Lumpkin police officer who pulled up to the scene and immediately began tasing Wells in a sadistic manner, is now gainfully employed at the Chattahoochee County Sheriff’s Office.

I called the Chattahoochee Sheriff’s Office at (706) 989-3644 to ask Sheriff Glynn Cooper if he thought that hiring Smith could possibly be a liability.

He has yet to return my call.

Tim Murphy, the 52-year-old Richland police officer who first responded to the scene and then pepper-sprayed Wells after she refused to identify her friend – a man whom he actually interviewed before sending him on his way – is apparently taking it easy before he accepts any job offers.

Lumpkin Police Chief Steven Ogle, who was going to fire Smith before he resigned, said he was shocked when he viewed the video, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Ogle said. “You don’t use it [a Taser] for punitive reasons, to prod someone. It was evident it was an improper use of force. He was an excellent officer other than that incident.”

Stewart County Sheriff Larry Jones, who also responded to the scene, was also shocked.

“It was worse than what I thought it was. I was shocked,” the sheriff told the AJC.

“The public needs to know.”

Jones, who is black, believes the incident was racially motivated because the two officers were white and Wells is black.

Meanwhile, Wells, 57, is looking to file a lawsuit. This is how she described the incident to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“All of it’s just unreal to me. I was scared to death,” Wells said in an interview with the AJC. “He kept tasing me and tasing me. My fingernails are still burned. My leg, back and my butt had a long scar on it for days.”

It all started on April 26 when Wells called police to report what she thought was a prowler. Her husband was out of town, so she called her friend of 26 years, John Robinson, to wait with her.

When Officer Murphy arrived, he asked Robinson a few questions, but did not think to ask him his name, not that it would have mattered because there was no indication that he was the reason Wells had called police.

When he asked Wells for her friend’s name, she refused to provide it.

“’You don’t need to know that,’” Murphy wrote in his report was Wells’ response. “I told her that she would need to give me the information that I needed or she would be arrested for obstruction. I explained that state law mandates that we investigate to determine if there has been any family violence.”

This is how Murphy described the incident in his report:

“Janice then backed up from me in a fight or flight stance and I grabbed her arm and placed a handcuff on it,” Murphy wrote. “She pulled away and she took off. I sprayed her with pepper spray. I chased her around the house and tripped and fell, injuring my knee just as I caught up with her. As I was once again walking her to the car, she broke loose again and ran. She tripped and fell and I grabbed her again. As we got to the car, I attempted to get the other handcuff on her and get her in the car.”

So Murphy called for back-up but because there was no officer from his own department available, Smith from a neighboring department responded.

It is from his dash cam that we get to see what happened after he pulled up to the scene and begins tasering her.

“Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” Wells pleads.

“Get in the car. Get in the car. You’re going to get it again,” Smith responded.

“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” Wells pleads again.

When reached by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Smith said he would likely do it again.

“I did what I had to do to take control of the situation,” Smith told the AJC about his decision to repeatedly discharge his Taser.

July 14th, 2010

Wash. Post reporter seeking out DC photogs who have been harassed 0

By Carlos Miller

After more than three years of blogging about photographers getting harassed for taking photos, it is refreshing to see the mainstream media finally taking notice that we have a serious issue in this country regarding fundamental rights.

A month after writing about the Anthony Graber incident, Washington Post reporter Annys Shin reported on the Jerome Vorus incident.

And now she is seeking other photographers in the DC area who have had similar run-ins.

This could lead to a much broader story in one of the most influential and respected newspapers in the country which just happens to be read daily by the people running this country.

It was only last week that Radley Balko and I were featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss the epidemic of police using wiretapping laws to arrest people videotaping them.

And tomorrow, barring breaking news, USA Today is scheduled to publish an editorial denouncing these arrests.

July 13th, 2010

Oregon police chief won't let definition of law get in the way of a few arrests 1

By Carlos Miller

Despite having to dish out a $19,000 settlement for arresting a man who videotaped police and despite an explicit memo from the city attorney stating that these arrests are bogus and won’t stand up in court, an Oregon police chief insists that these types of arrests will continue to happen.

It all boils down to each officer’s interpretation of the state’s wiretapping law, stated Beaverton Police Chief Geoff Spalding.

In other words, it all depends whether or not the officer chooses to make up the law on the spot as we’ve been seeing in so many recent cases.

Beaverton this month settled a federal lawsuit with Hao Vang who was arrested two years ago for filming police roughing up his friend.

Police charged with him the state’s wiretapping law even though they had no expectation of privacy as the law requires.

Vang was even narrating the scene, making it obvious that he wasn’t secretly recording them.

Nevertheless, they kept his camera for two months and when they finally returned it, the video had been deleted.

The incident prompted the Beaverton City Attorney to issue a memo to all officers stating that the wiretapping law requires an “expectation of privacy” in order for the arrest to be valid.

The attorney stated that because Oregon is a one-party consent state, the person doing the recording does not even have to inform them that they are being recorded. He advised that officers should just assume they are being recorded, especially when somebody is pointing a cell phone in their direction.

But Spalding believes his officers have the legal expertise to twist this law into their favor, which no doubt will result in even more settlements being dished out.

July 12th, 2010

DC photographer detained twice in four months for taking pictures of cops 0

By Carlos Miller

Jerome Vorus, a 19-year-old man living in Washington DC, is the latest photographer to prove that cops either do not know the law regarding photography or just choose to make it up as they go along in the hopes the photographer will be clueless.

Fortunately, Vorus is far from clueless.

In the last four months, he’s been detained twice for taking pictures of cops.

Jerome Vorus

In the first incident last March, he was actually tackled by an officer who supposedly was later disciplined.

You can hear that incident in the audio recording he made that demonstrates that although he is an aspiring pilot, he would make one hell of a lawyer.

The assault takes place in the first clip. The second clip captures the aftermath, including a moment when a cop tells Vorus he needs to “stop hiding behind the Constitution.”

In the latest incident earlier this month – which was covered by NBC Washington and might be covered by The Washington Post -  he came across a few cop cars making a traffic stop and snapped a few photos.

A male cop demanded to know what he was doing. He asked if he was being detained. The cop hemmed and hawed and told him no, he was not being detained. That he was free to go.

“As I was walking away, two other units pulled up,” he said in a phone interview with Photography is Not a Crime.

A female officer then stepped out and demanded his identification. He asked again if he was being detained. He also started recording the conversation.

“I notified her that I was only required to provide her with ID if I was suspected of a crime,” he said.

“She said, ‘yes, you’re being detained.’ I said, ‘now that we’ve established I’m being detained, here is my ID,’.”

The officer, who was under the impression that it was illegal to photograph police in public, then checked to see if he had any warrants against him. She also said it was illegal for him to audio record her, which he was doing openly.

Neither is illegal in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, the first cop was telling him that he was free to leave. Both officers were of equal rank.

Vorus asked for a supervisor, which only complicated matters.

“A sergeant arrived and told me I could not take pictures without permission,” he said.

A friend of his then arrived at the scene and tried correcting the officers by informing them that he, in fact, did not need permission to take their photos.

“Then they started asking for her ID,” he said.

But she knew better than to provide her identification.

He was eventually released after almost 30 minutes.

A few days later, Vorus spoke to a Sgt. Mercer at the police department to file a complaint.

“He said those officers were incorrect and that anyone can take pictures on public property,” he said. “He also told me he would speak to the officers to get their side of the story.

“It was Tuesday and he told me to call him back on Wednesday.”

Vorus called back on Thursday and surprise, surprise, the sergeant was no longer so cooperative.

“He now had an attitude. He said the officers told him I was taking pictures of inside the police cars. I told him all the pictures I took are posted on my blog.”

Not that it should have made a difference. As long as he is not physically entering the police cars, he has every right to photograph whatever can be seen from the outside. If the cops don’t like it, let them tint their windows.

The First Incident

Vorus was hoping to take photos of airplanes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.

It was March 1st and Vorus contacted the airport’s media relations department to inquire about its photo policy. He spoke to a Tara Hamilton.

We talked about me taking photos at the airport check-in kiosk for the airlines since that was private property leased by the airport, she notified me that I would need to ask their station managers. She also told me that she would notify TSA and Airport Police of my presence.

It wasn’t long before he was approached by Transportation Security Administration officials inquiring about his photography. The first two times, the TSA officials were in uniform. He told them he had permission and they did not push the matter further.

But then he was approached by two men in suits who told him he was not allowed to photograph “TSA checkpoints or TSA personnel.”

“They said they were in law enforcement. I asked them to show me a badge,” he said.

One of the men told him, “we ain’t going to show you shit.”

They eventually pulled out Homeland Security credentials.

Vorus began recording the conversation. He then snapped some photos of the men.

Then he walked away after being informed he wasn’t being detained.

But then one of the Homeland Security officers beckoned a uniformed Metropolitan Washington Airport Police officer who was on a bicycle, telling him him that Vorus was being “combative.”

In cop talk, combative is anytime you question their authority. It’s the equivalent of contempt of cop. The only difference is, the word “combative” written on a police report gives them the justification of beating your head in.

So Vorus got into a discussion with the police officer, whose name turned out to be Corporal King.

I asked him “was I being detained” after 2 minutes of his hostility, and he did not respond. I then asked a couple more times. He stated no, I then asked him was I free to leave he also said no, I then followed up with well then I am being detained.  He asked me for identification. I asked one more time was I being detained. NOTE: “By this point I am extremely frustrated. I was verbally abused by two TSA employees and accosted by an Airport Police Officer.”  Officer King stated that if I did not provide proper Identification, I would need to leave the airport. I decided at this point I would depart from the airport.

As he was walking away, Vorus turned around and snapped a photo of King and another officer who had joined him.

This caused King to become combative, to say the least.

I was told by other officers that I was being detained as a suspicious person. When it was confirmed that I had been detained, relinquished a VA Driver License. I then was told that I would be taken to jail at least for disorderly conduct.

Officers came, examined the images that were stored on my camera’s memory card. I was told to delete the images of TSA personnel and airport personnel. I was released twenty minutes later. I was told that I was being detained for suspicious behavior, but I was never searched.

When I took a picture of Officer King he jumped off of his bicycle and said “your ass ain’t gonna take a picture of me” and tackled me.  I yelled “ that is assault, get off of me”. He grabbed the camera that was around my neck and walked away. The female officer yelled and motioned for me to sit on stairs that were to our left, two more officers came and yelled for me to sit down. One officer had a M-4 assault rifle.

The cops ended up deleting his images, which he was unable to recover, before sending him on his way.

He ended up filing a complaint against King and learned that the officer had “violated departmental policy” and “appropriate action has been taken” but wasn’t told any details, which probably means King was simply told not to tackle anybody when it was obvious he was being recorded.

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