A dispute between Baltimore County police officers and a man that filmed them arresting two people in Towson, Maryland, is raising questions about civilians’ rights to videotape cops.
Officers became combative when the bystander refused to put away his camera. One told the man to “get it out of my face.” Another officer told the man to “shut your fucking mouth or you’re going to jail.” The man later said, “I thought I had freedom of speech here,” to which an officer replied, “You don’t. You just lost it.”
Watch the full video here (warning: some explicit language):
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Baltimore County police officials are investigating the incident and told CBS Baltimore that they “recognize and respect the rights of citizens to film officers on duty in a public place, unless the person filming has violated a law or statute,” acknowledging that individuals operating in a public space do have particularly strong First Amendment protection. In several states, police have sought to use wiretapping or eavesdropping laws to protect themselves from audio and video recordings, arguing that the police incidents are instead private. A number of court rulings have rejected this argument, including one in Maryland. In 2012, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case on Illinois’ harsh taping restrictions. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ determination that Illinois could not enforce felony sentencing for unauthorized audio recordings was thus upheld.
In Maryland, a circuit judge reinforced this view after motorcyclist Anthony Graber was slapped with felonies for violating Maryland’s wiretapping law and “possession of an intercept device” for filming Maryland State Trooper David Uhler on a helmet-cam. Uhler had pulled Graber over for speeding and reckless driving. Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt, Jr. dismissed the felony charges against Graber, writing that “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.” Plitt’s ruling that onlookers can record officers in public sight remains the standard in Maryland.
Videotaping of police has proved an essential tool for monitoring misconduct and abuse, the most famous example being the grainy footage that caught Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King in 1992. More recently, cell phone video captured the shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale Station BART stop in the California Bay Area.
In Maryland, a video recording revealed misconduct after a University of Maryland basketball game in College Park, when officers from the Prince George’s County Police Department approached Jack McKenna and another Maryland student. Radley Balko explains:
According to police reports, McKenna confronted the officers, verbally provoked them, assaulted them, and then fought when they tried to detain him. But several students at the scene captured the incident on their cell phone cameras. In those videos, later posted on the Internet, McKenna appears to do nothing to provoke the police. Instead, the riot cops stop McKenna, throw him up against a wall, and begin beating him with their batons.
Prosecutors dropped charges against McKenna, while four of the officers drew suspensions.