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Photographers and police: a First Amendment clash

Photographers have been arrested, had camera equipment seized, and seen memory cards deleted by police officers. Is it harassment or protecting public safety?

By Staff writer / March 19, 2010

Photographers have clashed with police over their right to take pictures in public. Here, a British photographer attends a "I'm a photographer, not a terrorist" rally in London Jan. 23.

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Reality shows routinely tail US police officers, filming them tangling with miscreants. Cops regularly film themselves from cameras mounted on cruiser dashboards – and now special hats. But if the state uses cameras for its own purposes and defense, why are so many citizens getting in trouble for pointing their cameras at the police?

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The rise of security and red-light cameras coincides with ubiquitous photography, when nearly every American with a cellphone holds a reality-recording device in his or her pocket.

That democratization of photography is ratcheting up tensions between police, who sometimes feel beleaguered by citizen gotcha artists, and amateur photogs who claim a First Amendment right to record what’s happening in the public square.

“You can buy a digital camera the size of a stick of gum for 20 bucks,” says Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason magazine and frequent critic of police power in the US. “As a result, we’re seeing all these videos popping up that show not only misconduct, but contradict what shows up in police reports after the fact.”

A growing list of police seizures cameras and destroyed pictures is testing the Constitution’s First Amendment protections. In a New Orleans case this week, two “copwatch” activists failed to win a civil conviction against New Orleans police officers who three years ago confiscated their cameras, erased footage, and arrested them for “crossing a police cordon” during the Bacchus Krewe Mardi Gras parade.

There’s more:

  • A famous YouTube clip shows a citizen videographer running away from a police officer trying to grab his camera after another officer allegedly shot a handcuffed man, Oscar Grant, in the back at a crowded public transit station in Oakland, Calif., on New Year’s Day 2009. (The officer claimed he thought his gun was a Taser, but citizen video evidence was used to bring murder charges.)
  • After a three-year legal battle over Miami photographer Carlos Miller’s arrest on a public street for refusing to stop taking pictures of several police officers, Mr. Miller saw all the charges dropped this week. (His compendium of such incidents can be seen here: carlosmiller.com)
  • The Boston Globe recently wrote a series about Massaschusetts police using an obscure wiretap law to confiscate crime-scene video recordings collected by passers-by.
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