A new mobile app distributed online by the ACLU of California can protect your right to record police brutality in public, even if law enforcement tries to take away your smartphone to delete the video. Even if they destroy the phone, too. And as recent history tells us, this is long overdue.
Think back to 1991, before the era of smartphones, when George Holliday was lucky enough to have his VHS video camera nearby to record Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. This incident of police brutality that caught worldwide attention may not have ended with justice (the four officers were later acquitted), but it remained in public memory long enough to inspire many others to take witness, and to record what they witness.
Now, fast-forward to 2015. While Walter Scott was unjustly shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, Scott’s family and his entire community were served justice through a witness’ smartphone recording of the murder, leading to the policeman’s arrest. When Freddie Gray wound up dead in Baltimore, it was a smartphone recording that indicated the cause of death could be abuse from the police who arrested him. (And it was another smartphone recording that proved the officers’ first excuse – that Gray hurt himself being “irate” in the police van – was wrong, too.) And these are just two of many recent incidents in which public recordings captured police brutality.
But law enforcement is on to this recording trend, even attempting to stop it. In some cases, police took away a recorder’s phone to erase the video. In others, they completely destroyed the phone.
These attempts to restrict public recording of public events is why ACLU of California recently introduced a new mobile application program that can protect this right. The “Mobile Justice” app, available in both Android and iPhone formats, quickly uploads video recordings directly to a local ACLU, and even if someone tries to take away or damage the phone, the recording is still there.
Says Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU’s Southern California office:
Once the phone stops recording, the app quickly uploads a copy of the video to the local ACLU office. So it doesn’t matter what the officer or anyone does with the phone or to the recording on the phone because the video will already have been transmitted.
Check out their video:
Other recent incidents indicate how much this app is needed. A Los Angeles woman recording an arrest had her smartphone taken away by a U.S. Marshall, who then smashed the phone on the ground. What if another witness not been present to record the officer’s illegal action?
There are attempts at legal measures to restrict these recordings. A Texas state representative recently introduced legislation that would greatly restrict citizen recordings of police in the Lone Star state, and Illinois made it a felony if the incident could be regarded to be a “private conversation.”
But your right to record is protected, according to a 2011 U.S. Court of Appeals decision, as long as the event is in a public location and you’re not interfering with any police activity.
If you download ACLU’s new “Mobile Justice” app, there are still a few things you should know before you use it. Here are seven tips on recording police, provided by “Flex Your Rights” executive director Steve Silverman:
1) Know The Local Law
Recording the police in public is completely legal, but with some variations state-by-state. Some officers may still attempt to arrest you for made-up charges such as public disorder, for example. It’s best to stay a reasonable distance away from the incident you are recording.
2) Don’t Record Them Secretly
The incident has to be in public, and you have to be visible while recording. Doing it in secret can be against the law.
3) Respond Politely If Questioned By Police
If an officer sees you recording police activity, he or she might approach you and ask what you’re doing. “Flex Your Rights” recommends that you respond politely and respectfully that you are simply exercising your rights with no intentions of interference. For example, “I’m only using my First Amendment rights for documentation purposes, and from a safe distance. I am not attempting to interfere with your work.”
The officer may still question you or even be verbally abusive, but you should remain professional while responding. “With all due respect, the law says I can record in public as long as I don’t interfere.”
4) Don’t Share Your Video With The Police
After you complete your video, the “Mobile Justice” app will immediately send it to the ACLU. You can also post it online, such as on YouTube, and send it to local media, too. But don’t send it to the local police department, though, “Flex Your Rights” says. That gives them opportunity to respond against you, and lets them have time to drum up an excuse.
5) Prepare For Arrest
No, you’re not violating the law. That doesn’t mean an officer might not arrest you, though. Be compliant, “Flex Your Rights” recommends; remind police that you’re only exercising your rights, remain calm, and don’t resist if they still try to arrest you. Your video will be your defense.
6) Be Sure You Use Your Smartphone Correctly
To record an incident, you first need to know how to use your smartphone’s video camera. Practice enough so that you know how to quickly activate it.
7) Don’t Point Your Smartphone Like A Gun
Remember, police may be under stress when they respond to a call. If you whip out your smartphone too quickly, it might look like you’re reaching for a weapon.
When using it, don’t hold the phone in an aggressive position, either, and even watch your stance. Hold it with both hands, too, and if approached by an officer while recording with your smartphone, keep it at waist level and slightly tilted upward, “Flex Your Rights” recommends. That way, you can respond directly to the officer while still recording the conversation.
(Read more about these seven recommendations from the “Flex Your Rights” website.)
Image: Lalo Alcaraz via ACLU of California