Overly abusive and crooked cops beware, the prevalence of cellphone cameras and video recorders has made it easier than ever to catch dishonorable law enforcement officers on film as they overstep their bounds. As public officials, cops should be held accountable for their actions, and technology is making it easier to keep them in line. But, there’s a scary trend among some less-than-upstanding police officers that allows them to arrest anyone recording police officers that take their jobs too far.
A new report from Boston, Massachusetts shows how certain states’ wiretapping laws are being broadly misconstrued by cops to allow them to arrest citizens doing nothing more than recording worrisome situations with their cellphones. A number of Massachusetts residents have been arrested over the years for recording police actions during anti-war protests and overly forceful arrest situations. The police, hiding behind a law that requires both sides of a conversation to agree to being recorded on film or audio tape, have made numerous arrests over the years. The implication here is that the cops are trying to cover up any possible misconduct.
“The police apparently do not want witnesses to what they do in public,’’ said American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. The Boston police department responded to allegations that their cops are abusing the letter of the law in a bid to snuff out citizen oversight of excessive police behavior. “If an individual is inappropriately interfering with an arrest that could cause harm to an officer or another individual, an officer’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of the situation,’’ said Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.
The problem, it seems, is that ““Police are not used to ceding power, and these tools are forcing them to cede power,’’ according to David Ardia, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University.
In contrast to Massachusetts cops’ draconian attitudes towards citizen oversight, a Pennsylvania police department in Spring City and East Vincent Township has agreed to a policy that allows citizens to record on-duty cops on videotape. Unfortunately for Massachusetts State residents, a spokesperson for Attorney General Martha Coakley says that their police officers need not worry about the letter of the law. “At this time, this office has not issued any advisory or opinion on this issue,” said spokesperson Harry Pierre.
The good news is that Massachusetts – as well as other states in the US – might yet change their ways. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall believes that “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals when they seek to hold government officials responsible by recording, secretly recording on occasion, an interaction between a citizen and a police officer.”
Until changes are made, though, be wary of recording shady cop activities with your cellphone. If you feel compelled to do so anyway, your best bet to fighting an arrest is to openly record the situation with your mobile phone’s camera – hiding the camera or microphone can only lead to bad things. You’ve been warned.