It goes without saying that the only policy that’s needed to ensure citizens have a right to document the actions of their public servants is the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But the Baltimore Police Department, fresh off an embarrassing encounter with a bystander who sued the agency after officers confiscated and altered his camera phone in a 2010 incident, has reformed its internal policy in an evident attempt to reassure the public that the police won’t be allowed to fabricate a pretense for abusing that right again.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore PD has agreed to a $250,000 settlement to end a lawsuit filed by Christopher Sharp after the police confiscated his phone and deleted video he’d recorded of Baltimore officers making an arrest at the Preakness Stakes in 2010.
From the story:
The case centered on officers’ actions on May 15, 2010, at the Pimlico Race Course. There, Christopher Sharp said, officers violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights when they took his phone after the “arrest and beating” of his female friend.
Sharp, who was represented by the ACLU, sued the city, saying officers deleted videos on his phone.
“It took a long time, but … the Baltimore Police Department became very serious about resolving this case,” Sharp said. “What happened was wrong, but the Police Department is not my enemy. They have made great strides to correct this.”
Sharp originally wanted nothing more than an apology. But once the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, Sharp agreed to file a lawsuit against the department. A Federal judge lent the case momentum in 2012, ordering the police department to pay $1,000 in damages for attempting to assassinate Stephens’ character through follow-up intimidation tactics the judge described as a “witch hunt.”
That same year, the department attempted some damage control by codifying its policy on filing police officers in the line of duty. But the ACLU pushed back, saying the department hadn’t gone far enough. The revised policy reaffirms the public’s 1st Amendment right to film and record audio of police in the field, “unless such recordings interfere with police activity.” Maybe that wording invites some wiggle room for bad cops to interpret the rules as they see fit. Time will tell.
The department isn’t in the clear in complying with the 1st Amendment, or with its own revised rules. The Sun story relates two other recent incidents in which police have attempted to stop people from filming what they were doing — one involved a Sun photographer snapping pictures at a crime scene.
The most encouraging takeaway from the department’s attempt at reform is its recognition of citizen journalism as an inherent right indistinguishable from that of organized news-gathering agencies. The new policy states that police “shall allow all persons the same access for photography and recording as is given to the news media.”