Why Filming the Police Matters

Mary Bock is an assistant professor at UT’s School of Journalism. She is a former journalist who is an expert in photojournalistic practice, journalism ethics, and visual representations of the criminal justice system.

While many of us are watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri, with dismay and hope for a peaceful ending, it’s easy to forget how those images are making their way to our screens.  Professional journalists and citizens alike, whether they’re using smartphones or $90,000 video cameras, are making it possible for us to witness the scene. Their First Amendment right to film the police provides the information we need in support of our other rights — the right to peaceably assemble, to petition the government and to be informed as voters.

Many members of the media are working under ethical guidelines set forth by the National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Others are bystanders and participants attempting to record what they are witnessing. All of them are facing the dangers of working in a chaotic environment.

For about two years, I have been studying the police-monitoring work of a group in Austin called the Peaceful Streets Project. Volunteers videotape law enforcement activity in public places to create a visual record. The organization requires volunteers to obey a number of rules, including one that is both a matter of law and common sense — do not interfere with police as they work. Volunteers are also trained to spread out at any scene they are filming in order to record multiple angles, with the goal of creating a more complete photographic record.

Even though police departments have issued memos, and the courts have repeatedly ruled that it is legal to film police work, officers often attempt to confiscate cameras or forbid filming. In some ways, this is understandable. I would not want someone to film me at work all day as I write and teach. On the other hand, I do not have the authority to kill anyone in my line of work. I wield a red pen, not a nightstick.

The right to film police activity is not absolute. A photographer may not interfere with an arrest, and the right only extends to public property. And images rarely speak for themselves alone. Photos from Gaza were recently criticized as one-sided when a New York Times photographer found himself unable to gain access to Hamas militant activity. Images must always be evaluated, contextualized and considered as part of a documenting process, journalistic or not.

But cameras do make a difference. After a city in California required only half of its officers to wear badge cams, the number of complaints went down 88 percent, presumably because being watched causes all of us to be on our better behavior.

Cameras allow us to make up our own minds. Without citizen cameras, it’s unlikely that the violent arrest of Marlene Pinnock by a California highway patrolman would have made national news, allowing each of us to decide whether such force was justified. Without citizen cameras, we would not be able to see how police treated Ersula Ore, a professor at Arizona State University, when she resisted arrest for a jaywalking citation. Without citizen and news media cameras in Ferguson, we would not be able to witness, from the safety of our homes, what is happening there.

Filming the police as a regular citizen and journalistic activity is not meant to be a “gotcha” game, though it might feel that way to officers in the heat of the moment. Citizens pay police to protect their communities. Not only do they have the right to document how that protection is achieved, such work is essential to maintaining a balance of power between those armed with guns and those armed only with cameras.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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