Let’s Talk About Photographing Police Officers

In light of recent events involving police officers and police brutality, I decided it was time to outline YOUR rights when it comes to filming and photographing the police. It seems like there’s a hefty confusion when it comes to this. Police brutality is such a huge issue that documentation is needed more so than ever before in my opinion.

Documentation may not always help, as seen in the Eric Garner case. If that doesn’t ring a bell you need to come out from under the rock you’ve been living under and learn about it. I’ll summarize it for you just in case though: Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer, killed Eric Garner by putting him in an illegal chokehold for selling untaxed cigarettes. The grand jury decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Pantaleo DESPITE THERE BEING A VIDEO OF THE HOMICIDE. However, the only person indicted was the man who filmed the entire thing.

According to The Huffington Post:

“On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to return an indictment for the police officer who put Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold shortly before his death. A different Staten Island grand jury was less sympathetic to Ramsey Orta, however, the man who filmed the entire incident .In August, less than a month after filming the fatal July 17 encounter in which Daniel Pantaleo and other NYPD police officers confronted Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, a grand jury indicted Orta on weapons charges stemming from an arrest by undercover officers earlier that month.Police alleged that Orta had slipped a .25 caliber handgun into a teenage accomplice’s waistband outside a New York hotel. Orta testified that the charges were falsely mounted by police in retaliation for his role in documenting Garner’s death, but the grand jury rejected his contention, charging him with single felony counts of third-degree criminal weapon possession and criminal firearm possession.”

CLEARLY this is revenge for Orta filming the video in the first place. It’s no secret that juries are much more lenient to police officers than they are to, say, African-American men. CRAZY.

What that Eric Garner video did do was bring to light even more of the crazy shit that happens to people, especially African-American men, every single day at the hand of police officers – the same people that are supposed to protect us. 

So how does this apply to YOU?

You need to know your rights when it comes to filming police officers and that IT IS LEGAL for you to do so. They will try to intimidate you, get physical with you, take your recording device, etc BUT NONE OF THAT IS LEGAL. With all of these protests going on you need to understand and know your rights when photographing in public.

Check this list from the American Civil Liberties Union:
(List was taken from their website, which you should check out because it outlines all the laws)

Your rights as a photographer: 

  • When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police. Such photography is a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.
  • When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs. If you disobey the property owner’s rules, they can order you off their property (and have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply).
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. The Supreme Court has ruledthat police may not search your cell phone when they arrest you, unless they get a warrant. Although the court did not specifically rule on whether law enforcement may search other electronic devices such as a standalone camera, the ACLU believes that the constitution broadly prevents warrantless searches of your digital data. It is possible that courts may approve the temporary warrantless seizure of a camera in certain extreme “exigent” circumstances such as where necessary to save a life, or where police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that doing so is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence of a crime while they seek a warrant.
  • Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. Officers have faced felony charges of evidence tampering as well as obstruction and theft for taking a photographer’s memory card.
  • Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them.
  • Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged with trespass.

If you are stopped or detained for taking photographs: 

  • Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
  • If stopped for photography, the right question to ask is, “am I free to go?” If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
  • If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Special considerations when videotaping: 

With regards to videotaping, there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.

  • Such laws are generally intended to accomplish the important privacy-protecting goal of prohibiting audio “bugging” of private conversations. However, in nearly all cases audio recording the police is legal.
  • In states that allow recording with the consent of just one party to the conversation, you can tape your own interactions with officers without violating wiretap statutes (since you are one of the parties).
  • In situations where you are an observer but not a part of the conversation, or in states where all parties to a conversation must consent to taping, the legality of taping will depend on whether the state’s prohibition on taping applies only when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. But no state court has held that police officers performing their job in public have a reasonable expectation.
  • The ACLU believes that laws that ban the taping of public officials’ public statements without their consent violate the First Amendment. A summary of state wiretapping laws can be found here.

Have I ever run into issues when recording on public property? YES. Did I give up my gear or my memory card when asked to do so? NO. Did I go to jail for it? NO. Why? Because I recited my rights – something everyone, not just journalists need to memorize.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Photographing Police Officers

  1. I love you for posting this. Honestly. I can’t tell you how many times I see on social media of people who genuinely think that the police are simply doing there jobs. That protesting our unjust government is wrong and unchristian (I’m a christian). I really love that you are posting this and keeping people awake to what is happening in this country. Thank you this is something that people need to read.

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