New technology has dramatically increased the availability of digital video for law enforcement. The news is filled with information about the government’s increasing surveillance of the population, through the increased use of cameras in public places, audio equipment to record conversations, and warrantless searches of cell phones. Police agencies nationwide are even working to acquire “drones” to amplify their surveillance abilities.
As hungry as the government is to use these new technologies to watch and listen to citizens, law enforcement has fought public demands for greater transparency via audio and video technology. In 2007, the California legislature passed a bill aimed at preventing false confessions (identified as present in 30% of DNA exonerations by the Innocence Project). It would have required police to record all statements from suspects in cases of violent crimes. Considering the ubiquity of recording devices, one would think this was a simple request. However, law enforcement opposed the bill and Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation.
Due to pressure from law enforcement, some states prohibit filming police while performing their duties. It is difficult to see the rationale for such laws, other than protecting officers who engage in wrongdoing. In California, it is legal to film police, with some caveats. First, stay out of their way. If a person taking video is very close to the police, or blocking police in some way, that individual will be charged with interfering with a police officer. If you are filming an officer and he complains that your actions are interfering with him, just back up and put some space between yourself and the situation (but keep recording because there is probably a reason don’t want you to!). Second, the recording should be conducted openly. There are some rather ambiguous “wiretapping” laws that make secret recordings illegal if the party being recorded is unaware. As long as it is obvious and clear to the officer that you are recording, the recording should be considered legal.
The filming of officers is having a positive effect. Filming by the public and increased use of cameras in patrol vehicles and police stations has exposed thousands of instances of police wrongdoing. A search for “police brutality” on youtube.com yielded “about 305,000 results”. There is no doubt that starring in such a video is a career ending move for bad cops nationwide.
From the police perspective, they, too should want video evidence. What better evidence that a confession is not coerced or involuntary than a recording of that statement? And consider if an officer is accused of excessive force or abuse of authority, a video of an incident could save an officer’s career under these circumstances. A video or audio recording of an entire incident (not just selective recording) usually leaves no question as to what occurred during a confrontation. While we should be wary of over-surveillance of innocent citizens, police and the public alike should support a policy favoring transparency.