Do Citizens Have a Right to Film Police Officers? [POLICYbrief]


Recording police officers really came to the
forefront in the early ’90s with the Rodney King incident. And I think since then you’ve seen, uh, a
lot more, uh, public discussion on, on the rights of people to film law enforcement. It’s about transparency. It’s about understanding what our, uh, public
officials are doing. Especially public officials who carry with
them the ability to use force, including deadly force, to execute and enforce the law. The right of a person to film law enforcement
has become less controversial as it has become more understood. And I think the ubiquity of video cameras
in society today, where literally everything is filmed and thrown onto Facebook Live, has
sort of illuminated this reality. There’s been five or six different circuit
courts of appeal decisions affecting more than 60% of the US population that have affirmed
the right of individuals to film law enforcement in public while law enforcement officers are
engaged in their official capacity as police officers. Most officers today understand that the public
has a right to film police officers when they are engaged in their official capacity as
an officer and they’re in public. If you’re lawfully recording the police officer
in a public place and he or she tells you to stop recording, again, you’re under no
legal obligation to stop. The big source of contention seems to come
is when people take that right and they infringe upon the officer’s ability to, uh, safely execute
their job. It’s important to understand when a police
officer tells you to, to move back or to get across the street, it’s not necessarily because
they’re trying to stop you from recording them, It’s because you’re compromising their officer
safety or you’re inhibiting their ability to perform their duty. When you cross that line, then while the act
of filming may not in and of itself be illegal, you’re engaging in other illegal, uh, activity
which could lead to your arrest. It’s hard to provide concrete guidelines to
the public because everything’s contextual. Every situation is different. So then it’s always best to heed to the, uh,
to the warnings of the officer. I think the goal of cameras, body-worn cameras,
dash cams, or what have you, is not just to protect the citizenry, but it’s also to protect
law enforcement. Law enforcement officers who adopt body-worn
cameras soon realize that those cameras are a lot more helpful to them than they are a
hindrance. It’s a good thing that law enforcement understands
that that transparency exists. It’s good for the officers, it’s good for
the public.

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