Several hundred readers commented on yesterday's Slashdot post about citizens arrested for photographing police either in public or in the photographer's own property. Read on for some of the comments which defined the conversation in today's Backslash summary.Anthony Boyd is one of the readers whose inclination to believe the police is mitigated by the facts as reported in the case of Philadelphia's Neftaly Cruz:
"Police told Hairston that they did take Cruz into to custody, but they said Cruz was not on his property when they arrested him."
OK. I'm more inclined to believe the cops... wait a second...
"A neighbor said she witnessed the incident and could not believe what she saw."
"He opened up the gate and Neffy was coming down and he went up to Neffy, pulled him down...
Oh, you dumb, dumb cops. Of course Neftaly Cruz was "not on his property" during the arrest if you went onto his property and dragged him off! Why would you do that in front of witnesses?
To tomstdenis's argument that, even if the police really did violate people's rights, they should be treated leniently because "[P]olice are people and do bad things," reader alienmole points out a crucial difference:
The difference is that police have powers which ordinary citizens don't have, so when police do bad things, it can have severe consequences. Quite often, they're not held accountable for that, which again results from an abuse of power. That's what this is all about: accountability for the actions of public servants, particularly those with extraordinary powers. Cops in general are not the enemy, but bad cops are certainly an enemy which needs to be guarded against and eradicated whenever possible.
Reader BINC wants to know whether Pennsylvania actually has a law which would illegalize Neftaly Cruz's cellphone photo of police in the act of arresting a suspect. He writes
Many readers linked to online information and commentary on the recognized rights of photographers (at least in the U.S.). Reader pen was one of several to point to Bert Krages' site:
This seems to be part of a national push. In Montana it extends beyond photography. I have recently been threatened with being charged with "Obstructing" for not yielding to a warrantless search of my property, so I looked it up. See data.opi.mt.gov/bills/mca/45/7/45-7-302.htm especially paragraph (2). !!
General defense in Montana is insisting on trial by jury — provided one represents himself; otherwise it invites rapid bankruptcy — but trial by jury is not guaranteed by all states' consitutions for all crimes.
Reader hacker linked to an informative PDF and offers a useful summary:
Here is a handy pamphlet called The Photographer's Right that provides some advice for dealing with a situation like this.
Except in special circumstances (e.g., certain government facilities), there are no laws prohibiting the taking of photographs on public or private property. If you can be there, you can take pictures there: streets, malls, parking lots, office buildings. You do not need permission to do so, even on private property.
Trespassing laws naturally apply. If a property owner demands you leave, you must. But if a place is open to the public — a mall, office-building lobby, etc. — permission to enter is assumed (although it can be revoked).
In terms of the law, trespass and photography are separate events; the former is illegal, but the latter is not. Only if the use of photographic equipment itself violates a person's privacy (e.g., by using a long lens to look into someone's private room) might it violate privacy law. Further, while people have a right of privacy, businesses do not except as it relates to trade secrets.
Subject to specific limits, photographers can publish any photos they take, provided those photos do not violate the privacy of the subject. This includes photos taken while trespassing or otherwise being someplace they shouldn't be. Taking photos and publishing photos are two separate issues.
Please read the full PDF here with much more detail. I print copies of this on 4x5 index cards and keep them with me at all times when I'm taking photos in any public place.
Also, if someone demands your "film" or your camera, let them know that it is not legal for them to take it, unless you have been arrested of a crime involving that camera and that film. The crime for someone to demand and take your camera or film, is called theft, and threatening to do so (or to "break your camera"), is called coercion. Don't tolerate either of them, and if your equipment IS taken or broken, call the police and file charges.
PsychosisC contributed a link to a short video called " BUSTED - The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," writing "I've only had two encounters with police officers... but both of them sort of leave me thinking less of them."
Rights on paper aside, many readers posted horror stories of arrest-happy police; leereyno pointed to one that made the news in the Mid-Atlantic region, writing
According to reader rs79, this sort of thing on wouldn't happen north of the border; rs79 writes "I've photographed cops here in Canada arresting people a couple of times. They don't care." To this, RajivSLK says
[T]here does seem to be an increase in cases of police officers getting confused and thinking they work for the Gestapo. There was a case a month back or so where the daughter of a police officer was arrested for "trespassing." She and a friend were lost and had stopped to ask a police officer for directions. The officer refused to help them, stating that they would have to find their own way out. A few moments later they spotted another officer and drove over to where he was to ask for help, at which point the first officer rushed over and berated them for daring to ask her partner for help when she had already told them to get lost. ... A few minutes later these same officers arrested them for "trespassing" ..... on a public street. The girl and her friend spent the night in jail. They weren't charged of course because they hadn't committed any crime.
I don't know how this case turned out for the officers involved, but it shows a serious lack of oversight when two cops are able to run wild and abuse the public in that manner.
In most parts of the world, being a police officer is met with about the same level of respect as a personal injury lawyer would be here, if not less. The police are held in contempt because in most parts of the world, particularly the 3rd world, corruption and abuse are almost part of the job. Police officers in the U.S. are, at least among healthy segments of society, viewed with respect if not admiration. But this esteem is fragile because at the end of the day the police are armed agents of the state and that makes them difficult to love. So when officers abuse and betray the trust of the public and make false arrests, all it does is make life that much more difficult for them and and their fellow officers. Things like these are noticed, and remembered.
It's not so rosy up here in Canada. This past Canada Day the Victoria police instituted a policy of mandatory searches on all buses heading downtown. They can get away with this because, on Canada Day, the bus is used mostly by young people going to clubs. I objected to being searched thinking that I would simply not be allowed back on the bus. Instead, to my complete surprise, the officer began to become very verbally abusive and I was arrested for "Drunk and Disorderly Conduct."
No breathalizer, no sobriety test, nothing. 100% solely based upon the officers "observation." I was processed and thrown into a dirty cement holding cell that lacked even toilet paper let alone a bed. As it stands, the Victoria police can arrest anyone at anytime under the charge of "Drunk and Disorderly" with no evidence and no sobriety test.
I can't wait for the day when *I* can video tape everything. That should provide a little balance to things.
ZorbaTHut suggests the sort of technological answer that RajivSLK's looking for, which might remind Neal Stephenson fans of the "gargoyles" in Snowcrash.
I've been waiting for a mini-stealth-camera-and-recorder to appear. I want a little device, the size of a cellphone camera, that fits in a button or a necklace or a belt buckle or something equally inconspicuous. It should be connected to a waist controller, which would include battery pack, storage (hard drive or flash), and wifi. Wifi so that, whenever it can find an available internet connection, it can upload its contents to a secure server located elsewhere.
Just imagine that. "Sorry sir, you took a picture of something you weren't supposed to. I'm going to have to confiscate your camera." "The pictures are already in Texas, and in ten minutes they'll be posted online. Same as the recording of what you're saying right now. You really want to illegally take my possessions, Officer Frank, Number 3894?"
Many thanks to the readers (especially those quoted above) whose comments informed this discussion.