Michael Tabman

Cops, Camera, Action ~ Department of Justice weighs in on videotaping police in action

In Crime and Security on March 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm


     In June, 2011, I posted my first blog concerning the increasing instances of police officers arresting and harassing private citizens for videotaping the police while exercising their official duties in public.  My opinion was clear: police officers acting in their official capacity have no expectation of privacy; that videotaping police without their consent was clearly constitutionally protected activity and the abusive police responses needed to stop.

As police continued to this troubling conduct, I blogged two more times on the issue: Arrested for Videotaping – Again and Did Freedom of the Press Prevail?  

Recently, the Department of Justice took a position in its Statement of Interest filing in a federal civil rights lawsuit.  Fortunately, “The Justice Department told the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in its filing today that it upholds an individuals’ 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendment rights to peacefully photograph police as they are performing their official duties in a public place, and that their rights have been violated when police seize such recordings without a warrant or due process.”

Hopefully, this will lead to police ending the practice of interfering with this constitutionally protected activity.  Police engaging in abusive or illegal conduct should be videotaped and held accountable. Yet, the public must remember that no right is absolute.  The right to film police in action cannot rise to the level of obstructing justice or interfering with police enforcement activities.

For the vast majority of police officers who are out there protecting you at great personal risk – why not let them do their job without harassment?  None of us would want someone following us around with a camera.   Let’s respect the hard work and sacrifice of our law enforcement officers.

This was my first blog on the subject:

Freedom of the Press: A Dying Right?

July 11, 2011

There has been growing coverage of law enforcement officers harassing and arresting people for photographing or video-taping cops in the street or federal buildings. This is a very disturbing trend that is contrary to every principle I learned and adhered to during my 27 year career in law enforcement. I am not an attorney, and am not attempting to provide a legal opinion; these are just my thoughts based on many years of experience.

Freedom of the press has always been a cherished right of our nation. Obviously, our founding fathers were most concerned with the written word. Over the years, photography and video have become inextricably included as aspects of “the press.”

When I was a cop, there were no cell phone cameras. But we knew that when the press was present at the scene of any event, we could be taped without giving permission. The general concept was that once a person walks out in public, he/she has no reasonable expectation of privacy and they may be filmed. We are discussing being filmed in general terms – not stalking, using someone’s person or likeliness for commercial gain, perverted uses of cameras or other illegal or unethical acts.

Many investigations, especially when I worked organized crime and narcotics, involved the videotaping of people in public places without a warrant; this was legal. Now, police are prohibiting citizens from engaging in this otherwise legal and constitutionally protected action. After the Rodney King taping, all law enforcement was put on notice. In my first book, Walking the Corporate Beat: Police School for Business People, I discussed how all cops should act as if they were being taped – as they probably were.

I have read of instances of police seizing the recording device and deleting the pictures, although there was no law broken. This is inexcusable.

After 9/11, the federal government started prohibiting people from photographing federal buildings. When I was stationed at FBI Headquarters in 2003 and 2004, I remember the FBI uniformed police shooing away families taking pictures of the building. Even in the shadow of the 9/11 tragedy, that was ridiculous. There are many surreptitious methods for taking such photos. There are advanced tools, satellite photography and simple internet searches available to anybody plotting an attack upon a building. Intimidating innocent tourists will not deter such an event.

Recently a friend of mine called me, quite distressed that two FBI agents swooped down upon him as he taped his young child in a park. The problem – the park was across the street from an FBI office. This too is inexcusable. I am unaware of any law that prohibits such photography.

Today, many police vehicles, and even the officers themselves are equipped with video recorders and tape events and personal exchanges, whether there is an arrest or not. That is done without our consent. This seems out of balance. If anyone should consider their actions on the street as a matter of public record with no expectation to privacy, it is public officials, acting in their official capacities, in public, with the public.

This trend should be stopped at all levels.


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