On March 3, 1991 a bystander with a home video camera captured the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Back then it was rare to see images from a private citizen have such a big impact. But times have changed. Whether it’s something controversial or bizarre, cell phone cameras are everywhere recording everything.
“Almost everyone has in their pocket a cell phone that can record audio and video at a resolution and quality that probably exceeds what the Rodney King video looked like at the time,” says David Ardia, the Director of the Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He says now it’s almost instinctive for people to press record when they see officers in action, and every day the images end up on the news.
Take the recent arrest of a teenager at Roxbury Community College. Someone posted cell phone video of a Boston Police officer punching the struggling fugitive on YouTube. It sparked outrage and an investigation; two things that might have never happened if the recording didn’t exist.
There was also cell phone video taken by a Pace University student after D.J. Henry of Easton was shot. It shows an officer in Thornwood, N.Y. waving his gun at a crowd of college students. The recording is evidence as authorities review how police acted that night.
“Video doesn’t always give us the truth but it gives us another perspective to evaluate that as you get more and more of these opportunities, to look at a situation from different perspectives and different angles you can get closer to figuring out what the truth is,” Ardia says. But what happens when an officer doesn’t want to be recorded and demands the camera be turned off?
In July, we told you about Simon Glick, the Boston attorney jailed for taking video of police struggling with a teen drug suspect in the Boston Common. Glick was charged with felony wiretapping. The case was eventually thrown out of court, but it cost Glick time and money.
In Massachusetts, it is illegal to secretly record someone’s voice, but if you are in a public place, and your cell phone camera is clearly visible, you are perfectly in your rights to record anyone, even the police.
“If the police are aware you are doing the recording, and you are doing it in an open way, then there really is no violation of law that can come from doing that,” Ardia says.
Just remember, the officer you are recording may interpret the law differently so you may still be arrested and maybe even spend a few hours in jail. When using your cell phone camera to record police, you still must weight the risk to reward.