Photographers, Police & the Law

Photo by discarted

Al Tompkins of puts out an incredibly useful daily tip sheet of ideas and issues called “Al’s Morning Meeting” that journalists can then localize and adapt for their own communities. In response to the recent Gizmodo article, “Are Cameras the New Guns?“,  he interviewed Robb Harvey and Richard Goehler, two lawyers specializing in media issues, about the tension between law enforcement and photographers. It’s an excellent interview with a lot of salient points about photographers’ rights.

Al Tompkins: Are you seeing any new sensitivity by police to being photographed/videotaped?

Robb Harvey: The police have always been sensitive to accusations of wrongdoing or overreacting. I believe they are reacting to emerging technologies that allow millions of people to record events in real time, so we are likely to see more postings claiming misconduct and more efforts by police to prevent those postings.

The recent prosecutions mentioned in the Gizmodo article involved participants in the police action — persons being arrested or later charged. The video they have taken may be their best defense to the charges. Is the next step that law enforcement can prosecute recordings by bystanders? If that were the case, the widely disseminated video of the assault on Rodney King might never have seen the light of day.

Media organizations must remain vigilant and work to prevent the application of these laws in an unconstitutional way.

Richard Goehler: I would not say that I have seen any “new” sensitivity by law enforcement or firefighters here. In the past, I have heard about instances where police might confiscate or threaten to take a camera or recorder, but I would not call it a major newsgathering problem or interference.

I found the Gizmodo article very interesting. It seems to me that most of the cases highlighted in the article involved circumstances in which the videotaping or recording was of alleged abuse and/or improper conduct by the police. As a result, the police appeared more aggressive and more motivated to take action concerning the videotaping.

Often it appeared that the actions by law enforcement were in direct retaliation for the videotaping that had taken place. It was also interesting that these cases all took place in states or jurisdictions that have “two-party consent” statutes that let police officers make the argument that they had not consented to the videotaping.

Another interesting point about the cases in the article is that none of them involved traditional/mainstream media companies/reporters/videographers in their news gathering efforts. My sense is that law enforcement, even in a “two-party consent” state or jurisdiction, would be very cautious about trying to pursue claims like this against the media because doing so would surely bring a huge amount of attention and publicity with plenty of amicus support from other media organizations and journalism groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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2 Responses to “Photographers, Police & the Law”

  1. 1 Khraden July 1, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I actually have a few agreements and disagreements with the issue at hand. First up, I totally agree, that a photographer has all the right in the world to photograph any scene. However, it also must be done with respect to the others involved.

    Here is an example, there is a crime scene, let’s make it a murder. Evidence markers are placed on the ground and there are Officers on the premises performing an investigation. Now, the suspect has not been caught, and is currently on the loose, armed and dangerous.

    Well, it’s obviously big news so media folks begin to show up, however, more often then not, police lines seem to mean nothing to them, and the cross it with swift abandon, snapping shots as they go. What is going to happen to the evidence that has been marked? Well, there is a good chance that it could be tampered with, or moved, and in some cases, the placement of evidence can make or break a case. On another note, they are taking shots of the police officers themselves. These officers have done more than investigated this scene, and others very well may have a grudge against them (say an old arrested suspect who now has a chip on his shoulder). The simple act of taking the shot without permission, can lead an individual who may be wanting revenge directly to where his target is, and give him an idea as to what he looks like now.

    I believe in the Freedom of Speech, and the Freedom of Media; however, it must be done with respect to others, AND with facts backing what is being portrayed. There is nothing worse than something taken out of context that will eventually hurt another individual. Fairness is all in the eye of the beholder.

    • 2 babydiscarted July 1, 2010 at 3:46 pm

      I don’t know if you’ve seen otherwise, but the vast majority of photojournalists I know respect the crime tape and the evidence gathering process. If they don’t, they’ve brought it on themselves.

      I think the issue these lawyers are addressing is when photojournalists do everything right and play by the rules and are still intimidated, harassed and even arrested.

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