The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department this week, claiming the department has used excessive force repeatedly to stop civilians from filming officers in public in recent years, according to court papers.
The suit, which centers on a woman's accusation that she was physically struck and restrained while filming an arrest at an environmental protest in 2012, contends the department has repeatedly violated its own policy, which calls for officers to allow themselves to be filmed in public.
"We’ve seen a pattern of this kind of policing with incidents as early as 2010, and this is actually our fifth lawsuit on behalf of someone who was arrested or... restrained for trying to record or even just observe the police performing their duties in public," Molly Tack-Hooper, an attorney with the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, told the Los Angeles Times.
Amanda Geraci, a therapist and legal counselor to demonstrators, said an officer thrust a forearm across her neck and physically restrained her while she filmed an arrest near the city's convention center.
“I was shocked when Officer Brown pushed me against a column and restrained me by my neck, just for recording the activities of her colleagues as they arrested someone," she said in the ACLU statement.
The lawsuit also lists a half-dozen instances in which citizens were accosted or faced criminal charges simply for filming officers in public. In July 2010, for example, two Philadelphia residents claimed they were thrown to the ground and beaten after they tried to record an arrest with their cellphones, according to the suit.
The charges were eventually dismissed, a trend in the incidents described in the lawsuit.
The issue of filming police has gained national attention in recent months as a string of high-profile in-custody deaths led to riots and a federal investigation in Ferguson, Mo., and stern criticism of the New York City Police Department.
A grainy cellphone video of officers using a chokehold to restrain Eric Garner ultimately sparked a criminal investigation into his death in New York City, while several videos surfaced after the shooting of Ferguson resident Michael Brown that could prove crucial as a grand jury weighs criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson.
While police contend Brown was charging at Wilson when the fatal shot was fired, supporters and relatives have said the unarmed man was trying to surrender.
The New York, Los Angeles and Chicago police departments have all launched pilot programs that will see officers wearing body cameras this year, and Ferguson police have also begun using body cameras since the unrest that followed Brown's death.
A police department spokeswoman told the Times the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The department does have a standing policy that instructs officers not to interfere with civilians who are filming or photographing what they do unless that person is somehow violating the law or obstructing police actions.
While he does not believe the issue is widespread throughout the department, Philadelphia City Councilman James Kenney told The Times that officers need to accept that they will be filmed, likely at all times, in the smartphone age.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we shouldn’t be stopping people from doing that. It’s clearly within the realm of their 1st Amendment rights," he said. "Despite some officers being upset about it, in the end, it probably protects them, too.”
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