Police officers should welcome civilian surveillance

On November 14, a tourist took a photograph of New York City police officer Lawrence DePrimo giving a barefoot homeless man a pair of boots that the officer had bought for him with his own money. Officer DePrimo’s actions, captured by a civilian’s camera phone, clearly get to the heart of what it means for him to serve and protect.

In an era when almost everyone carries a cell phone that can record photos or video at a moment’s notice, amateur videos regularly capture police officers doing frightening things (pepper-spraying peaceful protesters at UC Davis, the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, and so on). Police are often resistant to being filmed, and sometimes go so far as to pin bogus charges on people who record them.

But if the police are not committing misconduct, why should they oppose civilian surveillance? Video can exonerate police officers of charges of misconduct and, in the case of Officer DiPrima, show them in a positive light. Recording the public actions of police officers is legal, and should be encouraged. As the First Circuit Court of Appeals stated in one of our cases, “A citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.” Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011).

Police departments must teach their officers not to interfere with the First Amendment right to record. Police officers should also learn a lesson from Officer DiPrimo: When you act to serve and protect, you have nothing to fear from a civilian’s camera phone.

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