Keeping an Eye on Law Enforcement

Recently there has been a police push back against citizen recording of "police business". As reported recently by National Public Radio, the ubiquitous presence of cell phones and other personal recording devices has meant that citizens can record arrests or other police actions, but unfortunately the police and prosecution response far too often has been to arrest the recorder, charge them with illegal wiretapping or obstruction and far too often to place that person in the position of facing felony charges. Dennis Slocumb, who is vice president of the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO and is a thirty-two year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, recently published an op-ed, "Respect Officers' Rights," in which he advocates not criminalizing such conduct. Slocumb does also caution that someone looking at the recording needs to understand its context, and what may have happened before the taping started. A fair point -- one that should apply equally to recordings of defendants in custody in my view.

Slocumb's point that officers should behave as though they are always being recorded is a sound one. There is a big difference between interfering in an officer's ability to do his job, and recording what is going on from across the street. In impoverished neighborhoods and towns, there is a strong distrust of the police, and a consequent refusal to assist the police in solving crimes. One way to dispel that distrust would be for the citizenry to feel free to record what they see. As Radley Balko has written, not allowing recording -- or at least criminalizing such recordings -- erodes trust in the police. I am certain that nearly everything the public would see would be good by-the-book police work, by police officers who respect and care about behaving in a respectful and just way.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The right to assembly mostly meant in the past to hold a rally or a march or otherwise express oneself publicly. In today's digital age, that right has grown exponentially -- and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances should, I believe, include the right to record what the government, through its law enforcement agents, are doing.

Democracy is messy and too often full or vitriol, it's true. Sadly there is a "them/us" feeling that many police officers have regarding "civilians." Perhaps allowing recording of police actions and behavior might exacerbate that problem. But I don't think so. I think we will find some awful behavior by the police, yes, but it will be rare. In the end, knowing what the police do will be reassuring and likely make us proud.