Over the weekend, the man who videotaped New York police officers as they put Eric Garner in what turned out to be a fatal chokehold was arrested by other NYPD officers for allegedly handing an illegal gun to a 17-year-old.
In response to the arrest, police union president Patrick Lynch sought to discredit Ramsey Orta’s video footage, saying, “It is criminals like Mr. Orta who carry illegal firearms who stand to benefit the most by demonizing the good work of police officers.” Lynch leads the largest contingent of New York City police officers as head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
What Lynch calls “demonizing the good work of police officers” seems to be Orta’s videotaping of a violent chokehold that has since been deemed a homicide by the medical examiner. Police were arresting Garner over allegations that he was selling untaxed cigarettes, and they held him down while punching him in the face as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” He died several hours later from compression of the neck. The chokehold move is banned in New York, and the officer who performed the move has since been stripped of his gun and badge while an investigation is pending.
Rev. Al Sharpton blasted Lynch’s comments as the “sickest logic I’ve ever heard.” There is no evidence yet to suggest that Orta’s arrest was in retaliation for his recording; Orta has been arrested several times before. But independent of whether Orta committed a crime, his video of the chokehold has drawn national attention to NYPD tactics that may also violate the law.
For decades, recordings of police encounters have been one of the primary means for sparking accountability and reform. Video recordings captured the beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant on the BART train in Oakland. And in a recent instance of meta-police accountability, Baltimore police were captured telling a man filming an arrest to “shut your fucking mouth or you’re going to go to jail” and that the man didn’t retain freedom of speech.
Taking photographs in public spaces, including photographs of the police, is protected by the First Amendment. But some states have moved to criminalize audio and video recordings by claiming the audio violates state wiretap laws. Courts have struck down these laws in several states, and two federal appeals courts that held individuals have a right to record police officers. In Maryland, a state judge invalidated felony charges against a man who taped his own traffic stop. Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. wrote, “Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in a public forum, we should not expect our activity to be shielded from public scrutiny.”
But individuals that include many credentialed journalists have reported aggressive retaliation for their photos or recordings. Recently, freelance photographer Angel Zayas said he was forcibly pushed out of a subway turnstile and up an escalator when he tried to photograph a stop-and-frisk in Manhattan. In 2012, reports emerged that a New York Times photographer was beaten, arrested, and had his cameras seized as he photographed a stop-and-frisk. And officers arrested and harassed a number of journalists during Occupy Wall Street protests for photographing police.
Instances of police brutality may be increasingly coming to public attention because of the popularization of smartphones and other recording devices. “[W]ith the advent of technology of people being able to capture these events, I think they’re coming to light more and more,” criminal justice professor David Long told ThinkProgress last December, referring to a spate of reported fatal police shootings of unarmed individuals. “In the past, I think people would just fabricate and deny and nobody was the wiser.”
And research suggests that recording officers can lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of force. A 2013 study by the Police Foundation found that officers who wear body cameras are more than 50 percent less likely to use excessive force.