“I thought I had freedom of speech”
“You don’t. You just lost it”
Consuming the news is seldom an exercise in experiencing the best of humanity. And the police are often easy targets dealing, as they often do, with the worst human beings have to offer. But a number of recent incidents have brought singular clarity to the growing problem of police violating the law with impunity by aggressively preventing citizens from recording their public actions.
In fact, there were a trio of stories from the city of Baltimore alone in just the last two weeks that demonstrate how an increasing number of police officers are simply out of control. The quotes above are from a video in which a man attempts to record officers making an arrest. Instead of doing their jobs, they decide to menace and assault the videographer simply because they do not wish to be recorded as they make an arrest on a public street.
Watch the video and see how severe and lawless the behavior of the police has become. Besides clearly violating the man’s first amendment rights, the police seem to enjoy their position of power for the wrong reasons. Perhaps that’s why they took the job in the first place?
It’s important to note that there wasn’t just one officer behaving outrageously – it was at least three who persisted in treating the man taping like we might expect Putin’s police in Moscow to act – simply demanding compliance with all orders immediately – orders designed solely to prevent the legal public recording of the actions of the police. Clearly there is some general idea among these men and their command staff that this behavior is acceptable. There is no indication by any of the police that flagrantly violating this man’s fundamental rights out in the open on a crowded street while being taped might be unacceptable, not to mention illegal.
Just as Gov. Chris Christie didn’t need to directly order his henchmen to shut down traffic lanes in New Jersey, the culture he engendered allowed it to happen. President Obama probably didn’t issue a memo instructing the IRS to actively target conservatives, he just fostered an environment where it is acceptable. The same is true here. The police leadership have promoted an environment where such behavior is no big deal. In fact, just last week came the announcement that the City of Baltimore would pay Christopher Sharp $250,000 to drop his suit alleging Baltimore Police stole his camera and deleted all his videos because they didn’t like that he recorded “video of his friend being beaten by police.”
That story reveals this additional disturbing detail: “Last year, a federal judge rebuked police for engaging in a “veritable witch hunt” of Sharp and ordered the department to pay $1,000 for a “not so subtle attempt to intimidate the plaintiff.” Is this enough to cause the police to change their abusive ways?
The Department of Justice actually weighed in on this case two years ago, issuing a guidance letter imploring the police leadership to make it clear that they need to leave people alone when they are doing nothing more than recording the police. These photos of a Baltimore Sun photographer being manhandled by police show how much – or little – impact that letter made. If the guy didn’t have a badge on, he would be guilty of assault and battery. His actions are not legal because he has a badge – it just means nothing will happen to him. Sure, the taxpayers might have to fork out many thousands of dollars to compensate for police misconduct, but if the past is our guide, that will hardly be sufficient motivation for the officer on the street or his command staff to change this behavior.
There may be reasons why the police would prefer their actions in public not be recorded beside the fact they are abusing people and wish that abuse would not be documented. However, those reasons are insufficient legally and morally to prevent recording. Police have been granted tremendous power, and the ability to record their activity is essential to holding them accountable.
Federal civil rights laws exist to protect people from corrupt state and local authorities. How many more extremely well documented incidents will it take for the Department of Justice to act? Their letter was ineffective. More severe action is necessary. The nationwide police war on photography, documented daily by the website Photography is Not a Crime, has been escalating in recent years, and the Department of Justice is the appropriate and necessary vehicle to deal with it.
Even those of us who are not leftists had reason to be optimistic that Barack Obama might reign in civil rights abuses by police and other authority figures. But instead of less, we have seen more intrusive government and civil rights abuses during his presidency. We can now add this to the growing roster of failures by his administration.