Inquirer Editorial: Catching cops on candid cameras

Posted: October 14, 2011

In repressive regimes, it may be standard procedure for police to handcuff civilians and smash their cameras because they snapped photos and video of cops doing their jobs.

But this isn't Iran.

Thus, it's good to hear from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that such egregious rights violations are the polar opposite of official Police Department policy in Philadelphia.

Even though Ramsey never should have had to say it, he recently issued a department directive that made it clear police officers cannot take away the cameras of citizens who merely record their activities. (Only if they suspect there's evidence of a crime depicted on a camera can it be seized to safeguard such information, Ramsey said.)

By telling officers that it's "not illegal to videotape" them, the commissioner, in effect, advised cops that they need to assume that they're operating in a fishbowl environment - since "cameras are everywhere."

Now, though, the challenge is to make sure that message gets put into practice throughout the 6,700-member department.

In several troubling incidents that came to light in recent press reports, Philadelphia police arrested bystanders who used cellphones to record arrests. After their release, the amateur photographers said that they found their phones had been smashed and the images destroyed.

The encounters with local police track a national pattern of officers in other cities confiscating phones used to take videos of police activities. Lawsuits have been filed in several states, resulting in a ruling from one federal appeals court that affirmed an individual's right to film police in a public place.

Rights advocates correctly applauded Ramsey's directive, but they raise legitimate questions as to whether the department will be made to answer for officers who may have crossed a constitutional line before the commissioner's directive was issued.

The American Civil Liberties Union is readying a lawsuit on behalf of several people arrested after taking camera-phone pictures, and a similar suit is pending over a woman's 2009 arrest for taking pictures at a protest in Northeast Philadelphia. If successful, these legal challenges could result in court monitoring to assure the department complies with Ramsey's directive.

Just as civilians must be mindful that their daily comings and goings may be monitored due to the proliferation of security and other surveillance cameras, police officers have to accept that they will be watched by the same public they're sworn to protect.

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