The First Amendment Right to Record The Police
According to the United States Constitution, the First Amendment is written as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (U.S. Const. amend. I)
There have been many cases in which video evidence has contradicted an officer’s testimony and either an officer was convicted of wrongdoing or a suspect’s charges have been overturned or dismissed. With this great lack of integrity and accountability of the very ones who are paid to uphold the law, it is imperative, in the interest of justice, that civilians’ right to record police be preserved rather than criminalized.
Gayle Falkenthal, in her Washington Times article, “All Journalism is Citizen Journalism,” reported that in the case, Glik v. Cunniffe, the court ruled that a citizen’s right to film government officials is protected by the First Amendment. Simon Glik, a client of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was arrested for “illegal wiretapping” after he recorded threeree officers using force to arrest a young man on the Boston Common. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, on August 26, 2011, ruled that “”a private citizen’s right to videotape police officers performing their duties in a public space is ‘unambiguously’ protected by the First Amendment.”
Richard Winton, in his article, “Sheriff’s Department sued over detention of photographers,” made it clear that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department on the behalf of the National Press Photographers Assn. and three photographers who were harassed, detained and illegally searched while legally taking pictures in public places. The senior staff attorney for the ACLU declared that “photography is not a crime” and that for the police “to single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.”
Thomas Clouse and Meghann M. Cuniff, in their Spokesman newpaper article, report on one case in which an officer was convicted of wrongdoing after a store’s surveillance tapes told a different story than the officer in question. Spokane Officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., claimed that Otto Zehm assaulted him in his 2006 encounter in which Zehm was beaten and tased into a coma from which he never recovered. Three years later the FBI launched a federal investigation and the jury, after review of the video evidence in contrast with Thompson’s statement, convicted Thompson of excessive force as well as lying to investigators. This is one case in which video footage has served to ensure that justice was served and that an officer did not completely get away with murder.
Another case in which video evidence has been used to convict an officer was the 2009 shooting of BART (San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit) rider, Oscar Grant by former BART PD Officer Johannes Mehserle. Although many people were outraged with the verdict and the amount of time Mehserle served in custody, it was video evidence from several onlookers’ cell phones that aided the prosecution in the historic involuntary manslaughter conviction. Johannes Mehserle was another case of a cop who almost got away with murder, as well as an officer who’s testimony contradicted the videos of the respective incidents and therefore, yet another reason filming government officials is rightfully protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Ammendment.
According to the May 27th 2011 press release of the San Francisco Public Defender, Officer Peter Richardson arrested Jesus Inastrilla and claimed that three undercover officers arrested Inastrilla after witnessing him spit a crack rock in his hand and sell it to Guerrero (one of the undercover officers), however, video footage shows that no exchange was made. The charges were dropped after Guerrero claimed that he could not locate the alleged seized drugs in evidence. The same day in San Francisco, 25 other cases were dropped due to lack of evidence, police credibility issues and a string of tapes with contradictory evidence to that of the statements of officers. With this lack of accountability and integrity of sworn SFPD officers, without cameras, there is no way of knowing whether or not an innocent person will be wrongfully convicted, therefore, the protection of civilians with cameras is absolutely necessary in the best interest of justice.
SF Examiner Staff Writer Brent Begin, in his article “San Francisco police to carry video cameras during arrests” implies that the misconduct of SF Police officers had become so prevalent and the controversy so widespread that SF Police Chief Greg Suhr proposed the idea of equipping SFPD officers with cameras to record their arrests (Specifically in drug cases and cases that require consent or a search warrant). These ideas come in the wake of the aforementioned string of videos. The officers involved in the arrests in question were all removed from plainclothes duty pending further investigation, however, Chief Suhr insists that the officers are innocent until proven guilty. Being an officer of the law requires a person hold themselves to a higher standard, and with their superior officers brushing such violations off in such a way, justice cannot possibly be served.
By exerting such abuses of authority, officers of the law make justice unattainable without the interference of good samaritans and “copwatchers” who record the cops’ often reckless and over the top behavior. Also, as in the cases of Mehserle and Guerrero, the American people cannot trust officers of the law to police themselves and their fellow officers because time and time again they have lied under oath and violated the rights of, and even killed civilians unlawfully and conspired amongst themselves to continue to sweep things under the rug. The right to film officers while performing their duties in a public space is rightfully protected by the First Amendment and in the best interest of justice, law enforcement agencies must immediately cease the criminalization of “copwatchers,” otherwise the United States government will be deemed to be in violation of its own constitution, the fundamental laws which establish the character of a nation.