Videotape training won’t cause change
Recently, Allegheny County district attorney Stephen Zappala announced that Pittsburgh police will take refresher training regarding when citizens are allowed to videotape the force, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This program appears to have been prompted by recent incidents in Pittsburgh and across the nation regarding police officers’ responses to citizens videotaping them in public.
It is unlikely, however, that this refresher course alone — without any punitive measures for police officers who stray from the guidelines — will solve a problem that is nationwide in scope: Police harassing people who have videotaped them.
In a time when everyone has a cell phone and an eagerness to document every aspect of their lives, it is no wonder that recordings of police encounters have become more frequent since the 1990s, when the videotaped beating of Rodney King stirred riots and national controversy. Although no video has created the same level of uproar these days, police often react negatively and sometimes even forcibly when they realize people are taping them.
For instance, Anthony Graber, a Maryland Air National Guard staff sergeant, put up a video on YouTube of an encounter with a state trooper in which the trooper cut Graber off in an unmarked vehicle and yelled at him while holding a gun in plain clothes, according to Time magazine. In response, the police searched Graber’s home, arrested him, and charged him with wiretapping. There have also been other instances where police officers have arrested or harassed citizens who videotaped them.
It is important to note that in these cases, the police were recorded in a public space, where there is little expectation of privacy. If any other citizen had been recorded in these spaces, it would be very unlikely that the person behind the camera would have been arrested and charged with wiretapping.
There are some instances in which there is a legitimate need to keep aspects of police work private. For instance, in a drug bust against a gang, police who are identified can become targets of that gang.
However, police are often caught on camera in everyday situations that have been horribly mishandled. For example, in one viral YouTube video, a New York Police Department officer is seen shoving a bicyclist to the ground. The officer, who claimed the bicyclist collided into him, was thrown off the force. In these cases, amateur videos can serve to check police power.
The harsh police response to instances of videotaping serves to protect the force’s image. Perhaps these responses are done in part to minimize hostility toward their respective departments. It makes one wonder, then, how truly effective a tactic of intimidation and harassment would be to this end. More disturbing, however, is the implication that the police are abusing their power as protectors of the public to cover their own tracks when they act improperly.
In other aspects, videotapes have been a boon for law enforcement due to their value as evidence in investigations and trials. Video recordings have often been used to find lawbreakers, such as the Boston bomber from last April.
Police often react apprehensively to amateur videos when it is their own wrongful actions that have been caught on camera. There have been some small attempts — from both courts and municipal governments — to protect the rights of citizens videotaping police, but not much action has been taken in response. The Allegheny County district attorney’s statement may not be enough to prevent cases in which police harass people who tape them, but it is a sign that this problem is becoming increasingly recognized.