Citizens Recording Law Enforcement Activities

Citizens Recording Law Enforcement Activities

Recent high-profile use-of-force events have spurred a national narrative on police tactics and community relations. It seems this topic is covered in never-ending 24-hour news cycles. Law enforcement officers across the United States are being scrutinized more than ever, not only by the news media, but by the courts, political activists, and ordinary citizens. The implications for law enforcement jurisdictions and individual officers are far too important to set aside or kick down the road. Increasing public alarm concerning the use of force, the exponential rise of mobile devices with recording capabilities, and the public’s ability to instantly post a video on social media, together with the call for the law enforcement community to take a step back and perhaps gain a more comprehensive perspective.

We are sworn to preserve and protect the constitutional rights of citizens. Our relationship with the community we serve is essential. Without the trust and cooperation of the public at large, we simply cannot be effective in preserving law and order. As police officers, our conduct is held to a much higher standard, whether we’re acting under the color of authority, or off duty, minding our own business. Let’s face it, much of what we do is covered by the news media because it’s of genuine interest to the communities we serve, so we shouldn’t be surprised by individuals who want to record police interactions with the public. Many law enforcement agencies have begun to issue body-worn cameras to officers in response to the dampening of community relations. Video captured by body-worn cameras often provides a wider perspective of events and may aid public relations, especially during critical incidents.

The recording of law enforcement activity is protected by the First Amendment. Citizens who have a legal right to be present can record law enforcement officers conducting police business in the public domain. Individuals enjoy the same rights to record as journalists, although their freedom to record is not absolute and is governed by the same restrictions as free speech. In other words, a person recording police activity may be subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions. Furthermore, individuals cannot place themselves or others in harm’s way while recording, nor can they enter a marked crime scene or interfere with police activity. It’s important to note that the act of recording in and of itself is not “interfering”. The burden of interference in this scenario must rise to the level of materially obstructing or delaying police activity. Moreover, the actions must be articulable by the agency if the individual’s ability to record is in any way affected.

Let’s take a step back and consider public perception as we carry out our duties. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the oath we’ve taken as public servants to preserve and protect citizens’ constitutional rights. With this perspective and understanding, we can strengthen our relationships with our communities and secure our standing and lasting legitimacy as law enforcement officers.

Authored By: Gary K. Anderson
Consultant and Retired Law Enforcement Captain