Friday, December 2, 2011

2009 Preakness Beating: Phones, Freedom, and a Ranting Lemming

Freedom is a funny thing. Folks want it for themselves, but aren't always comfortable when others use their freedom. When the uncomfortable folks wear a police uniform, bad things can happen.

From yesterday's news and views:

'Don't Nobody Look!?' 'Nothing to See Here!?'

"Taking Liberties: iPhone, YouTube and the First Amendment"
Douglas Kennedy, (December 1, 2011)

"The YouTube video shows the 2009 Preakness. A woman lies bleeding on the ground inside Pimlico Race Course in Maryland after an altercation with police.

" 'How many times are you going to punch her, someone yells at the five or so cops, who are holding the woman on the ground.

" 'Was that necessary?' another person screams.

"An officer at the scene can be heard telling bystanders to stop videotaping the incident with their cellphones.

" 'Turn that off,' he says, claiming it's 'illegal' to tape the police in a public place...."

That's where the Lemming got really, really, interested.

If it's "illegal" to tape the police in a public place, the police departments all over the United States must be routinely breaking the law. The television series "Cops" has been running since 1989, broadcasting footage recorded by dashcams.

Of course, 'that's different.' Those dashboard cameras are part of the police department inventory, and are used as a law enforcement tool.

Back to that article.

"Illegal," or Embarrassing?

"...So is it really 'illegal?' It's a question many courts are facing these days with the proliferation of cell cameras and other handheld recording devices.

"Chris Sharp was at Pimlico that day and also pressed the record button on his phone. The woman on the ground was a friend of a friend, and Sharp caught the entire confrontation, including what he calls 'the beating.'...

"...Unlike the YouTube video, Sharp says he caught the initial takedown.

" 'I got the whole thing,' he said as he paced back and forth in the parking lot behind the headquarters for the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union.

"Unfortunately, Sharp said something similar to the police at the scene. 'I told them I got it all.'..."

Sharp, in the Lemming's opinion, made a really big mistake at that part: assuming that his story is essentially accurate.

Telling someone you think is committing a violent crime, that you've got video evidence of the crime, when the perpetrator can hurt you, is, again in the Lemming's opinion, not prudent.

Collecting - and Destroying Evidence?!

"...He says the police then took his camera and erased all the contents, including the video and all his pictures.

" 'After they took my phone,' he said, 'and then gave it back to me, everything was off of it… my personal videos of my son and family and friends.'

"Sharp and his attorney are now suing the Baltimore Police Department, claiming it violated the First Amendment...."

Things get a little technical at that point. Essentially, some folks think that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to America's Constitution, give Americans certain rights.

Some of them aren't all that much of an issue today, like Amendment III:

"No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law."

Then there's Amendment IV:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

A key word there is "unreasonable." The Lemming figures the police officer who apparently erased the evidence he was confiscating thought what he did was "reasonable." At least, using the "I want to do this, so it's reasonable" principle.

On the other hand, Amendment I doesn't mention cell phone cameras, or videotape. Not once:

First Amendment: Cell Phones, No; Freedom, Yes

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Which makes sense, considering that video recording devices hadn't been invented in 1791. Those excerpts, by the way, are from:

Freedom ISN'T Conformity

"Freedom" can mean quite a few things, depending on who you listen to. A regrettable number of folks seem to think that "freedom" means, "free to agree with me." McCarthyism and political correctness are two recent examples of that sort of aberration.

It's the Lemming's considered opinion that freedom is the:
  • Condition of being free
  • Power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints
    (Princeton's WordNet)
Folks in a society have to agree on some things, like which side of the road to drive on, and whether a red traffic light means "stop" or "go." Beyond that sort of thing, the Lemming thinks that freedom allows folks to make decisions.

Even if they're not exactly what the Lemming decided.

At least, that's the way it should work.

The First Amendment's "establishment clause," and odd notions about religious beliefs - - - is a topic for another blog:

American Police: Sensible, Professional, Mostly

"....[Attorney] Jeon says the police 'harangued' Sharp to give them his phone, claiming they wanted it for evidence.

" 'Then, she says, 'they took the phone and deleted the so called "evidence." They were the ones who broke the law.'..."

At this point, what happened at the 2009 Preakness seems to be a 'he said/she said' situation. Since Sharp's video no longer exists, it can't be used as evidence for or against anybody. That's assuming that it exists, of course.

In a perfect world, everybody on every police force would act - perfectly. We probably wouldn't even need police. But this world isn't perfect, some folks are not safe to be around - and, unhappily, a few of them wear police uniforms.

Please note, the Lemming said "some," and "a few." Each time that the Lemming was detained by the police, they acted in a sensible, professional manner: and that's another topic. The Lemming is also aware that wearing a police uniform doesn't guarantee good behavior.

The Lemming hopes that there were enough witnesses to piece together what really happened: either to exonerate the law enforcement folks involved; or identify a problem before someone gets hurt. Hurt more.

If that video existed, what happened is daft: at a minimum. Seriously: Identifying something as "evidence," and then destroying the evidence?! In front of an interested witness? Without, ah, dealing with the witness later?

Never mind ethics and Constitutional rights: that's daft. And stupid.

"Ridiculous," No: Dubious, Maybe

Back to that article, again:

"...'This is ridiculous,' says Rod Wheeler. 'This lawsuit should go nowhere.'

"Wheeler is a former Washington, D.C., detective and current police advocate.

" 'Police officers,' he continued, 'do not need citizens out there with cameras videotaping each and every move that they make.'..."

The Lemming has no reason to doubt that Wheeler is sincere.

However: being sincere, and being right, aren't necessarily the same thing.

For folks in police uniforms, "...cameras videotaping each and every move that they make...." may be inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing: but that doesn't make it wrong.

Like the Lemming said:
Granted, that example is a case of the police videotaping themselves.

Wheeler is probably right about police, some of them, 'not needing' citizens recording visual evidence of their activities. The rest of us, though, are arguably better off with citizen video. 'Checks and balances,' and all that. Back to the article, yet again:

Cameras "In the Way?"

"He says cameras get in the way of good law enforcement.

" 'They interfere with the arrests and, actually, that's exactly what happened with that arrest in Baltimore.'...

"...'These individuals were standing back hollering, taunting the police,' he said. 'They were interfering and obstructing the arrest.'..."

Wheeler has a definite point of view. He may be right. The Lemming wasn't at the 2009 Preakness, and doesn't have all the facts. Sometimes bystanders really do interfere with and obstruct legitimate police work.

Sometimes they interfere with and obstruct the activities of uniformed thugs.

The Lemming doesn't have enough facts to form an opinion about the 2009 beating.

Moving on.

"Recording" isn't "Interfering"

"...Sharp says he certainly did not interfere with the police.

" 'I can't disagree more,' he said. 'I was nowhere close to the incident going on.'

"He said he now believes recording the police is an important right that needs to be preserved.

" 'I think we have a right to videotape anyone we want to, especially someone that's a public servant,' he said.

"The ACLU urges anyone with questions about what they can and can't videotape in public to view their video called '"Know Your Rights.' "

Like the Lemming said, every time the Lemming and the police got up-close-and-personal, they acted sensibly and professionally. And, in a few instances, had very good reasons for detaining the Lemming. Not that the Lemming is 'one of those criminals,' and that's yet another topic.

The idea that observing and recording actions done in public is 'interfering' with the actions doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Not to the Lemming. But then, the Lemming doesn't get hissy fits over security cameras in a parking lot, or the Highway Patrol using radar to determine how fast the Lemming is driving.

Photographers Should Obey The Law: So Should Police

The Lemming's no great fan of the ACLU, but they put together a pretty good resource, "Know Your Rights: Photographers." (ACLU)

Here's an excerpt:

"...Your rights as a photographer:

"When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police. Such photography is a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.

"When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs. If you disobey the property owner's rules, they can order you off their property (and have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply).

"Police officers may not generally confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant. If you are arrested, the contents of your phone may be scrutinized by the police, although their constitutional power to do so remains unsettled. In addition, it is possible that courts may approve the seizure of a camera in some circumstances if police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that it contains evidence of a crime by someone other than the police themselves (it is unsettled whether they still need a warrant to view them).

"Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances.

"Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them.

"Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged with trespass...."

The next part of that page, advice on what to do if a police officer stops you, starts with:

"Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer...."

That's good advice, in most situations: in the Lemming's opinion.

The Lemming's done photography, professional and otherwise, and had to learn America's rules for photographers. What the ACLU said matches what the Lemming got from other sources. It's also 'common sense.' But that's the Lemming's take on the matter: and the Lemming doesn't think that photographers can do anything they want.

The Lemming also thinks that America's police are:
  1. Generally
    • Professional
    • Competent
    • Focused on public safety
  2. Not perfect
Number two is why the Lemming thinks it's okay to consider the possibility that someone in a police uniform may not have acted properly. Even if that person "collected evidence," and deleted information that showed what happened.

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Actually, the show Cops mostly uses cameramen rather than the dashcam videos. That way the camera can follow the police when they have to leave the vehicle to issue warrants and/or run down criminals.

There are a lot of shows that make use of the dashcam footage, though. Often to humorous effect.

I have run into a lot of people who don't trust the police on principle. Something about people who go into that line of work being 'bullies.' I've never run into a nasty cop. They've always been nice, polite, and helpful. (One time I was pulled over when I was lost and the cop not only gave me directions, but had me follow her to an area I was familiar with.)

Brian Gill said...


Noted: and let that be a lesson for me, to factcheck memories. Thanks!

I've run into the 'police are icky' belief, too: it seems to be as deeply entrenched as 'end times prophesies' in American culture. Given time, you or I would probably run into a 'bully' in police uniform: but I suspect we'd have to be rather patient.

I also think it helps, in my case, that my first reaction in a confrontation tends to be an attempt at negotiation. Maybe that's an echo of the old Irish charm. ;)

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