Inquirer Editorial: Videotaping cops isn't illegal

A video made during the Puerto Rican Day celebration in September showed Lt. Jonathan Josey striking Aida Guzman.
A video made during the Puerto Rican Day celebration in September showed Lt. Jonathan Josey striking Aida Guzman.
Posted: January 23, 2013

As a crime-fighting strategy, Philadelphia police need to be worrying more about making repairs to video surveillance cameras that don't work, rather than hassling citizens who happen to point a functioning cellphone camera their way.

The 200 anticrime cameras posted around the city should be helping police nab the bad guys, but as many as one in four are down for maintenance. Meanwhile, far too many police officers seem to be camera shy when they have no legal right to be.

Despite a directive issued more than a year ago by Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that officers could be videotaped legally while performing their jobs, the Police Department last week was hit with the first of several federal lawsuits by a rights group that contends officers have intimidated and arrested people who tried to videotape them.

Civil rights litigation was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Temple University journalism student Chris Montgomery, who was arrested and jailed in early 2011. Montgomery's cellphone video of police confronting a suspect in Center City was erased, and the student later faced a court hearing and 24 hours of community service on a disorderly-conduct citation.

Given that the ACLU has collected more than a half-dozen accounts of police belligerently confronting people who made videos of officers' street encounters, it appears the message that police officers are living in a YouTube world hasn't gotten through to some under Ramsey's command.

And judging from the Temple student's experience in Municipal Court, not only rank-in-file officers are in the dark. The case transcript reveals that Judge Kenneth Powell Jr. told Montgomery that he shouldn't photograph police officers. The judge wondered aloud how police are "going to do their jobs if they are afraid to do anything because someone is out there with a camera."

That's just the point, of course. They should do their jobs as if someone is watching. Apart from the fact that - as Ramsey said in his directive - there's nothing illegal about photographing police at work in a public setting, any officer doing his or her job properly should have nothing to fear.

The flip side is that amateur photographers can protect citizens' rights, as when apparent police misconduct is broadcast across the Internet. Just such a YouTube video led to discipline for a police lieutenant who unexpectedly punched and bloodied a woman's face at a parade last fall.

Police need to accept that they're going to be in the public eye, and it seems more and more warranted for the federal courts to order independent monitoring to make sure Philadelphia's officers understand that.

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