Q&A

New push to protect people who videotape police officers

Questions raised about what an individual can record when it comes to law enforcement

In a world where cellphone videos are increasingly ubiquitous, the scene captured Sunday in South Gate has generated attention and alarm.

A U.S. marshal was captured on a video snatching a woman’s cellphone as she was recording and smashing it on the ground.

The incident comes as courts have affirmed the rights of the public to record police actions and as several states have moved to protect those rights with legislation.

The California Senate this month approved legislation clarifying the law so that those who videotape police without interfering with investigations have clear legal protection.

The American Civil Liberties Union backed the bill, saying it "safeguards our collective freedoms and takes an important step towards ensuring that individuals are not punished for the mere exercise of their constitutional rights."

Its author, state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), added: “Recent events throughout the country and here in California have raised questions about when an individual can -- and can’t -- record.”

How is this playing out across the nation?

While many courts have ruled the public has a right to record officers, there have been incidents in which police and prosecutors have tried to justify taking cellphones.

This week, Oregon lawmakers moved forward a bill that would make it legal to videotape police as long as it didn't amount to interference. 

As law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in The Times in 2011: "The increasing availability of cellphones and video cameras has fundamentally changed police abuse cases, creating vital evidence in cases that were once dismissed as matters of conflicting accounts between officers and citizens. With that change, however, has come a backlash from officers who, despite court rulings upholding the right of citizens to tape police in public, have been threatening or arresting people for the 'crime' of recording them. In many states, prosecutors have fought to support such claims and put citizens in jail for videotaping officers, even in cases of police abuse."

After the South Gate incident, civil libertarians echoed that view.

“There is no situation in which an officer can intentionally grab and destroy a camera being used to lawfully record law enforcement,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The officer’s conduct is a blatant and deliberate violation of the Constitution and his duties as an officer to abide by the law.”

How has video shifted police tactics?

Police now receive training that reminds them their public actions could easily be recorded. There is a push to equip officers with body cameras that would record their actions. Los Angeles hope to have body cameras on most officers within the next few years. 

Other departments have used police audio recordings. Such recordings proved to be key evidence in the criminal case involving Fullerton police officers' fatal encounter with Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died after he was beaten by police in 2011.

“We’ve had incidents where people have videotaped us and it requires unbelievable restraint. Typically during times where things can be a little chaotic,” said South Gate police Capt. Darren Arakawa.

What happens next?

An investigation into the South Gate incident has been launched. “The U.S. Marshals Service is aware of video footage of an incident that took place Sunday in Los Angeles County involving a deputy U.S. marshal. The agency is currently reviewing the incident,” officials said in a statement.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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