FACEOFF: Should the government bar citizens from videotaping police officers as they interact with the public?

FACEOFF: Should the government bar citizens from videotaping police officers as they interact with the public?online surveys

FACEOFF: Should the government bar citizens from videotaping police officers as they interact with the public?

Anthony Graber, a Maryland Air National Guard staff sergeant who has never been in trouble with the law, faces up to 16 years in prison. His crime? He videotaped his March encounter with a state trooper who pulled him over for speeding on a motorcycle. Then Graber put the video - which could put the officer in a bad light - up on YouTube.

 Graber is not the only person being slapped down by the long arm of the law for videotaping the police in a public place. Prosecutors across the U.S. claim the videotaping violates wiretap laws because, in some states, including Maryland, both parties to a conversation must consent to having a private conversation recorded. Opponents question the term "private," saying a police officer arresting or questioning someone on a highway or street is not having a private conversation, but rather is engaging in a public act.

It's not hard to see why police are wary of being filmed. In 1991, the Los Angeles Police Department beating of Rodney King was captured on video by a private citizen. It was shown repeatedly on television and caused a national uproar. Back then it was unusual for bystanders to have video cameras, but today, everyone is a moviemaker with cell phone cameras. And with the Internet, a video can get millions of viewers worldwide.

Recently, a New York Police Department officer was thrown off the force - and convicted of filing a false report - because of a video of his actions at a bicycle rally in Times Square. The officer can plainly be seen going up to a man on a bike and shoving him to the ground. He claimed the cyclist was trying to collide with him, and in the past, it might have been hard to disprove the police account. But this time there was an amateur video of the encounter - which was viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube alone.

In the Graber case, the trooper also apparently had reason to want to keep his actions off the Internet. He cut Graber off in an unmarked vehicle, approached Graber in plain clothes and yelled while brandishing a gun before identifying himself as a trooper.

Civil rights groups like the ACLU have embraced amateur videos and sprung to the defense of those charged with wiretap violations. Last year, the NAACP also announced an initiative in which it encouraged ordinary citizens to tape police misconduct with their cell phones and send the videos to the group's website.                          (Source: TIME Magazine)

Be sure to read what FACEOFF columnists Charlie Meyer and Steve Smoot have to say on this subject and If you have something to say about it, send us a letter-to-the-editor at: letters@newstribune.info. We want to hear what you have to say.


FACEOFF: Should the government bar citizens from videotaping police officers as they interact with the public?

By Charlie Meyer:

I support our law enforcement professionals, but with those police powers comes accountability.  They not only have to be true to their calling, but also be always ready to prove it to the citizenry who hold them in a position of trust.

Authorities equip police cars with video recording equipment to record traffic stops.  I think the ability of private individuals to record their interactions with law enforcement is a civil liberty.

In March, as reported by The  Washington Post, Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle on Interstate 95 in Maryland. Atop his helmet was a video camera which he used to record his travels.  His camera was rolling when an unmarked gray sedan cut him off when he stopped behind other cars.  The sedan’s driver, wearing a pullover and jeans, emerged from the car, pistol in hand, yelling for Graber to dismount from his bike. Only then did Maryland State Trooper Joseph D. Uhler identify himself as “state police.”  He cited Graber for doing a wheelie and speeding, issuing a ticket Graber said he deserved.

It gets worse.

Several days later, Graber, a staff sergeant in the Maryland Air National Guard, posted the video from his helmet camera on You Tube.  Posting video on You Tube these days  should only be unusual to Rip Van Winkle.  Apparently not to Maryland prosecutors who might have been napping during law school.

A few weeks hence, six police officers raided Graber’s parents’ home where he lived with his wife and two young children. Prosecutors had obtained a grand jury indictment alleging he had violated state wiretap laws by recording the traffic stop without the trooper’s consent.  Police seized his computer equipment and camera, but did not arrest Graber as he was recovering from surgery.  When Graber turned himself in several days later, he was held for 26 hours. He faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted on all counts. I can taste the bile rising in my throat.

The public pays police officers' wages, therefore, they work for us, not the other way around.  There should be no expectation of privacy for a police officer conducting a roadside traffic stop. 

As Americans, “we the people” have a habit of holding government officials accountable for their actions.  We demand transparency and fairness, particularly when the Bill of Rights is concerned.  We become downright livid when authorities twist laws, such as wiretap statutes, to seem to attempt to coverup clearly repressive, Un-American acts.

It wasn’t very long ago that a local police officer was accused of racial prejudice. He had earned the respect and admiration of the public.  As with any police officer, he was subject to a thorough investigation, which quickly found the accusations to be groundless.  It sadly happens, yet another burden of scrutiny police professionals assume as part of the job to serve and protect. With trust and authority comes accountability.

Less than two weeks ago, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about a federal police officer who shot a Siberian Husky in an Anne Arundel County, Maryland dog park. The family pet later died in a local emergency veterinary clinic.  Allegedly, the officer felt threatened by the Husky which was apparently playing roughly with the officer’s German Shepherd.   After Anne Arundel county police and the State’s Attorney Office initially declined to identify or press charges against the unidentified federal police officer, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold ordered an investigation. At press time, the police investigation has been forwarded to prosecutors to determine additional action.  We have the right to insure that law enforcement tools and powers are used properly.

 Most of us hold our police in high respect and regard. Law enforcement activities make our communities safer, and are usually of the highest ethical standard. We have a right to expect due diligence.  This is a free democracy, not a police state. 

Were community policing reduced to mere thuggery, we could “save” a lion’s share of the city budget, at least until the first brutality lawsuit.  We could easily get less than savory guys to pay us to do it.  We wouldn’t like the results, though.  If being a cop was easy, everybody would be doing it. In a land of liberty under law, policing is anything but easy or simple. There are very high standards in this toughest of professions.

There's an understandable "brotherhood" amongst police, given occupational stresses the civilian populace will never fully understand.  Alas, the dark side, the "Don't Cross the Blue Line" crap is just as corrupt and wrong as the "Don't Snitch" mindset in crime-ridden urban neighborhoods. Both subvert the rule of law, the foundation of our free society.

Serving our community as a law enforcement professional is a position of trust.  As with  all other public servants, our protectors must be subject to accountability. We empower them to protect our communities. We wish we could pay you more.  With our support and admiration, there is a corresponding set of safeguards for our liberties.

If the law enforcement loses the public trust, they fail in their mission. We can’t afford that.

The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers do an admirable job protecting us.  Those dedicated, highly trained, disciplined, and ably led professionals who perform their duties as if they were always subject to scrutiny are the true everyday heroes who give us a true sense of security in our communities.   Those who fail to meet the standard deserve nothing less than to be purged from the ranks of this honorable profession that serves us all so well.

We have a right to know. Occasionally, accountability comes down to, as they say in Missouri: “Show me.” We’re watching.


By Stephen Smoot:

I have to admit.  It is not often that I find myself on the same page as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.)  Usually they pick and choose which parts of the Constitution to emphasize (religion) while ignoring other vital issues (gun rights.)  This time they have it right.  When citizens of the states of Maryland and Massachusetts found  themselves arrested for videotaping police in the process of doing their public duty, the ACLU jumped on the case and I am glad they did.  The best part of this week’s topic lies in the fact that I am 99.995% sure that this question will appeal to my counterpart’s libertarian side.  We actually get to write, I anticipate anyway, in complete harmony.  The very notion  of citizens arrested for filming police on duty in public raises the hairs on the back of my neck in a "1984" kind of way.  Maryland, Massachusetts, and other states have seen citizens with cameras or recording devices arrested for taping a record of p! olice activities in public.

 Interestingly, state authorities make their arrests under illegal wiretapping laws.  These were originally aimed to protect people’s privacy from private detectives in the Massachusetts case.  Police officials  claimed that the privacy rights of officers had been violated by private recordings.  This argument does not hold water in light of the fact that they represent the public, doing a public job.  When taxpayers fund a government entity, unless there are serious national security concerns, the state really has no right to punish citizens for turning on their cameras or recorders.

As far as the police are concerned, I respect them and the  job they do.  They risk their lives daily for money that most people would  turn down to do far less.  95% of the time they act with professionalism and efficiency, yet always have to face the prospect of baseless accusations that could sidetrack or ruin a career.  To boost their image, we see a multitude of television shows dedicated to putting police procedure and action in the middle of our living rooms.  We see them on shows like “Cops” or occasionally on one of the twenty-four hour news networks conducting chases, trying to end standoffs, and resolving other tense situations.  Usually the bad guy loses and the good guys win by doing their jobs right.  Police departments have brought in more cameras to record interrogations and traffic stops.  Clearly the media and law enforcement welcome cameras in many situations because they demonstrate that these professionals usually perform their jobs correctly.

Individuals with cameras could certainly cause problems.  Selective editing could take a situation where the police acted properly and make it look very bad.  It could permanently harm the reputations of individual officers.  That being said, media outlets have done this as well.  The potential evil that an individual could cause through filming and manipulating the final product is not nearly as bad as the perception that would be created if people could not film police doing their duty in public. Sure a person could make and manipulate the video, but increasingly, police have their own cameras on that can refute false claims.

And what of the proliferation of cameras placed by law enforcement to watch over us?  Cameras watch us walk on big city streets, snap pictures of our license plates if we drive through a red light, and keep track of us in all sorts of other ways.  They ask us to accept cameras to improve our security, but shrug off concerns about invading the privacy of regular people living their everyday lives.  The least they can do is accept the fact that we need to be able to record what they do and  hold them accountable.  Even if a few rogue police operate, we are much less secure.  If they know the eyes of the public remain upon them, it will usually restrain the bad ones and benefit the professional officers.

We live in a society governed by law and no one can operate above it.  If any state outlawed the filming of police by private citizens in public places, that immediately removes police from the same accountability expected of anyone else.  Another problem lies in the question of who gets to film and who doesn’t.  Journalists of course can snap pictures or film.  In this day and age, anyone with a website is, functionally, a journalist.  Beyond that, we cannot outlaw people filming and taking pictures on the street and still call ourselves a free society.

 Therein lies the most important issue.

Some who are running law enforcement simply want to have their cake and eat it too, record people in a variety of different places to reduce crime, but oppose private citizens’ recording their activities.  This defies common sense and the basic principles underlying this country.

FACEOFF: Should the government bar citizens from videotaping police officers as they interact with the public?online surveys