New Judge Ruling: Police Recordings are Illegal

Getty Images News / Win McNamee

Getty Images News / Win McNamee

The national events of this summer have done absolutely nothing to extinguish the extremely apparent tensions between the police and the African American community. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille by the hands of the police, and the subsequent killing of multiple police officers in Dallas, Texas, has negatively impacted the country’s climate. These events should not fool us into thinking these problems have just recently developed. This conversation has taken place for quite some time. Names such as Eric Garner, Cedrick Chatam, and Michael Brown (all unarmed African American men) have been circulating the media for the last few years, leaving the country divided over who was in the wrong.

Those who feel that the police abuse their authority want to see more laws implemented to hold them accountable. To some, these laws should come in the form of mandated body cameras. The goal of these cameras are twofold; to have police remember they are being recorded before they possibly perform a regrettable action and to reveal the truth following any controversial altercation between an officer and a citizen. In 2015, The Department of Justice launched a $20 million dollar initiative to get all police officers body cameras. Attorney General Lynch explained that the cameras “hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” Some would disagree that this initiative isn’t as effective as it should be. In a Times article, it was noted that film can be very misleading, and at times, not even lead to justice. Rodney King was given as an example; “in 1991, a witness recorded the beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles and the video was presented in a high-profile court case that gripped the nation. King was African American; the officers were white. Despite video evidence of what appeared to be brutality, the police officers were acquitted. Angry citizens took to the streets, prompting intervention from the National Guard.” Although King’s attack shows how recordings do not resolve situations any faster, it is just one example; the case surrounding Laquan McDonald led to a much different result. McDonald was gunned down in the streets of Chicago by a cop in 2014. Following numerous investigations, the police car’s dash-cam, was released to the public, revealing the excessive force Officer Jason Van Dyke used. The release of the tape led to Dyke being charged with first-degree murder.

Although the body cameras can potentially reveal the truth in situations where only one side of the story can be heard, laws about recording officers are not as well-received. In Philadelphia, there was a court ruling that made it illegal to record a police officer, regardless of the actions being performed by the aforementioned public servant. Judge Mark Kearney released the following statement on his ruling “We have not found, and the experienced counsel have not cited, any case in the Supreme Court or this [Third Circuit] finding citizens have a First Amendment right to record police conduct without any stated purpose of being critical of the government ... We decline to create a new First Amendment right for citizens to photograph officers when they have no expressive purpose such as challenging police actions”. Judge Kearney feels that there is no instance in which a police officer would be recorded, unless to critique their actions. He saw this intent as one dependent on prejudice and ruled against it. Others have argued that this is exactly the type of thing a citizen should have the right to record. Among these vocal dissenters is civil rights attorney, Paul Hectzner; “’Gathering information for dissemination is a fundamental part of what we do under the First Amendment, and videotaping a police officer conducting their duties in a public space is a fundamental example of gathering information,’ he said, adding that other federal judges in Philly have classified recording as a First Amendment right”. Pennsylvania isn’t the first state to eradicate the recording of police officers. In fact, as of 2010, 12 states outlawed the recording of police officers.

Both sides of this debate make strong points; those in favor of police recording see this as a right to present a 3rd party objective view of any event in question. Cases like Walter Scott help strengthen this claim. Scott was gunned down by an officer after he took off running during a routine traffic stop. Officer Michael Slager pursued Scott, eventually firing eight rounds into his back. Feidin Santana caught the events on tape, and Slager was shown moving an item (what is believed to be his own taser) closer to the dead body. The existence of this film led to Michael Slager being charged with murder. Those against police recordings fear that the presence of the camera will escalate the situation, involve 3rd party citizens who officers will be worried about keeping safe, and not show the full story. The backlash of this Philadelphia ruling will definitely be an interesting series of events to witness. It’s sad that both citizens and police officers feel the other has no regard for their safety, but that is the society we now live in. Until racial profiling is diminished, both sides will always feel like they are enemies. An innocent person shouldn’t be afraid when a police officer approaches them, and an officer shouldn’t fear being targeted while performing their everyday duties. The actions of incompetent police officers should not taint the image of others, just like criminals that happen to be black, should not lead to every African American to be viewed as a threat. Until we diminish preconceived notions, on both sides, our country will remain in this broken state.