If police officers tell you that you can’t record them with your cell phone, they’re lying to you.
Note the conspicuous lack of maybe unless except weasel words in that sentence.
In a place you have the legal right to be, you have the right to record. Period. A cop that orders you to stop recording is breaking the law, violating the constitution and — in Atlanta — defying a court order.
Still, defying court orders is kind of how APD rolls. Last week, Atlanta and its police department were held in contempt … again … for failing to adhere to the terms of a legal settlement stemming from a 2009 SWAT-style raid on The Atlanta Eagle, a gay leather bar on Ponce, just down the street from Mary Mac’s Tea Room.
The now-disbanded Red Dog unit went in ostensibly looking for drugs and weapons and people having sex on the bar. After making the patrons roll around in broken bar glass on the floor for an hour, the worst accusation they could make was that some guys had shorts on that were too short.
No warrant. No probable cause. No charges on patrons. (Some employees were laughably charged with the shorts thing. All were acquitted after police perjured themselves in testimony.)
That led to a million-dollar settlement in federal court, and an agreement in the settlement to teach cops to treat the defending the constitution like it’s their actual job and not something to get around.
The court ordered police to cease stop-and-frisk without probable cause, to train officers on current Fourth Amendment law regarding detentions, arrests, frisks, and searches, including the legal standards set forth in the 210 Settlement Order, and to change its SOP to reflect the law. It required police to wear a conspicuously visible nametag, and to make sure any Atlanta police officer who is in uniform or displaying police authority identifies himself or herself by name and badge number upon request at some point before the end of an encounter with a civilian.
The court specifically, explicitly, unambiguously told police to stop snatching up bystander cell phone cameras.
The police department basically ignored the settlement. It changed its SOP in 2011 … and then changed it back in 2013. APD was held in contempt of court for the second time last week for failing to comply with the 2010 order.
As a practical matter, if you’re recording an interaction with a police officer in Atlanta, and that officer decides that he or she doesn’t want to be recorded, you’re going to be treated like a criminal suspect yourself. You’ll be asked for identification. Failing to identify yourself to a police officer is a misdemeanor crime in Georgia … but initiating the inquiry without probable cause is a civil rights violation. It forces someone taking bystander video to either submit to an illegal police inquiry, or create the conditions for an officer to initiate an arrest on the failure to ID charge.
After identifying yourself, a cop may then decide to run your name for warrants. Again, there’s no probable cause, so this is a civil rights violation. But the time taken to do so then becomes (specious) justification for the argument that recording police is an act of interference or obstruction — the cops have to take time to violate your rights that would otherwise be used productively. These are the conditions for the classic contempt-of-cop arrest.
The settlement was meant to prevent these abuses. Plainly, it hasn’t done so. Atlanta Police still feel comfortable arresting professional journalists covering events on the street, never mind Joe Citizen recording cops rousting rowdies on the East Atlanta strip.
The next time you see police arresting someone in public, record it. Be polite, use common sense, and don’t be a jerk. But record. And if a cop gets in your face, ask for their name and a badge number. Their name, not their supervisors’. And then post it online.
It’s 2015. Being recorded is part of the job for a cop. We need to know which officers are giving the public grief for it.