5 things to know about recording, taking photos of police activity

Every person has a right to record the police. Here’s what you need to know to responsibly document them through video and photography.

(Daniel Dionne / Flickr)
Posted on Aug. 20, 2014 at 4:11 p.m.

As protests continue in Ferguson, Mo., people are using their cameras to keep an eye on police and demonstrators.

Video and photography, which fall under the First Amendment, can be used to keep police accountable, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This right was recently put to the test during riots that erupted in a St. Louis suburb following the shooting death of a black teen by a white police officer.

Two reporters covering the protests were arrested Wednesday, Aug. 13.

Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post was working out of a McDonald’s when SWAT officers cleared the restaurant. He recorded a video of his interaction with an officer, who asked him to “stop recording.”

“Officer, do I not have a right to record you?” Lowery asked.

The answer? Everyone — even Elkhart County residents — can photograph and videotape the police, as long as it’s done responsibly. (The reporters, by the way, were released several hours later and were not charged with any crime.)

Here are five things you need to know about your rights when videotaping or photographing a police officer or sheriff’s deputy.


1. You can record law enforcement officials in public places

If you’re out in public, you can photographs or video record anything in plain sight, according to the ACLU. When you enter someone’s private property, they set the rules.

You can also record a police officer if you’re being arrested, as long as you’re able to — your recording device will likely be taken away if you’re put in handcuffs, according to Goshen Police Department administrative assistant Tina Kingsbury. She added the device will be returned to the handcuffed person once he or she is released from custody.

As public servants, police officers should not have a problem with being recorded if they are doing the right thing, wrote Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers on the department’s website.

“I do not agree with proposed laws that prohibit persons from photographing the police during their duties, excluding times when the videographer physically interferes with the police performing those duties or jeopardizes their safety,” Rogers wrote.


2. Do not interfere with police operations

If you’re interfering with police work, officers have a right to ask you to stop recording.

You can’t cross a yellow barricade line to get a better video or photograph, for example, as police officers may have cordoned off the area for the public’s safety.

“There’s a balance between letting the police do their jobs and observing what they’re doing,” said executive director and general counsel Stephen Key, who is with the Hoosier State Press Association.


3. Police cannot confiscate or demand to view your photos

Police must have a warrant before they can seize and search the contents of your mobile phone, according to a Supreme Court decision in June. But the ruling did not specify whether law enforcement can search other electronic devices such as cameras, according to the ACLU.

In extreme cases, courts may temporarily allow police to seize cameras without a warrant, such as when lives or evidence is at stake.


4. Police cannot delete your recordings

Police cannot delete any of your videos or photographs. Officers have faced felony charges, such as evidence tampering and theft, as a result of taking a photographer’s memory card, according to the ACLU.

Goshen police may ask bystanders to not share recordings or photographs of a crime scene until a later time, as it may interfere with an investigation, Kingsbury wrote.


5. You can record audio

You won’t get in trouble for taping a conversation, even if no one but you knows it’s happening. Some states argue that all parties being recorded have to be aware of it and have tried to regulate audio recordings (which includes video) under wiretapping laws, according to the ACLU, but Indiana is not one of those places.

Wiretapping laws don’t affect recordings taken in public, said Key.


What you should do if a police officer tells you to stop recording?

If a police officer asks you to stop recording, remain polite and ask what crime you are suspected of committing, as advised on the ACLU’s website. Do not show physical resistance toward the officer.

A police officer cannot detain you without reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime or are in the process of doing so.

Remind him or her of your right to take photographs and video of them, which is protected by the First Amendment.

If the officer still refuses, Key said you should ask to speak with either the department’s public information officer or the officer-in-charge.


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