There's been a lot of debate in this country over whether recording the police is legal. A judge in at least one state, Illinois, has shot down a request to film officers without their permission, while another judge here in Maryland has ruled such recordings are legal and an exercise in free speech.
Whatever an individual judge's ruling, it's become clear that witnesses who record police interactions with citizens are helping the country and its officers, not hurting them. Now, I'm not talking about annoyingly recording every officer walking down the street with cameras in their faces. I'm talking about recording violent public conflicts between officers and their targets -- arrests, riots and police-involved shootings. Video of these incidents can help police investigators get to the bottom of what really happened during a chaotic moment.
Case in point: Today comes news of a fatal shooting in Miami Beach in which observers recorded officers shooting more than 100 bullets and killing the driver of a stopped car. Four bystanders were injured in the hail of bullets. (The suspect was allegedly driving erratically and had struck and injured an officer. Police also say he had a gun in the car.)
It was a tragic, violent encounter, but what happened next added to the problem. In an attempt to apparently eliminate documentation of their actions, officers allegedly began trying to destroy the cellphones of witnesses who might have recorded their conduct.
One witness told his story to CNN:
Narces Benoit says he just happened to be in the area driving with his girlfriend when police fatally shot an erratic driver early Memorial Day morning. He said after the disturbance started, he pulled over his truck, and started recording with his cell phone camera capturing the shooting.
"When he noticed me recording, one of the officers jumped in the truck, put a pistol to my head," he said. "My phone was smashed - he stepped on it, handcuffed me."
Benoit's girlfriend, Ericka Davis, was also in the truck at the time. "They took everyone's phones and smashed them," she said.
Benoit says the only reason he still has the footage is because it was saved on a tiny memory card, which he removed and hid from the officers, despite being told to hand over his video.
Police say at around 4 a.m. on Memorial Day, officers stopped Raymond Herisse in his car, but after an altercation, he sped off.
Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega said that Herisse drove recklessly, striking other cars, "driving on sidewalks, and you name it."
"One of the officers was struck," he told reporters. Luckily the officer was not seriously injured, he said, but the suspect posed a threat to the officers and the public, "as a situation involving deadly force."
A video posted on YouTube, which CNN cannot independently confirm, shows a commotion on a wide boulevard, as an erratically driven car comes to a stop at an intersection. Bystanders scatter as officers surround the car, with guns drawn. Then gunfire breaks out. In Benoit's video, it looks like there are muzzle flashes from the pistols of as many as a dozen officers.
Herisse was killed, and four bystanders were injured by gunfire, according to Noriega.
Noriega said it was unclear whether the suspect shot at the officers, but police later recovered a gun from his car.
If Benoit's story is true, it raises several troubling questions. Why would the officers go around smashing people's cellphones? If they felt threatened by the man they shot, wouldn't they want to protect the videos to prove the danger they encountered?
I don't know whether the police were in the right here or not. The video is unclear on that point. Maybe the driver in the car was aiming the gun at the police from inside? Maybe he fired the first shot? Maybe he was putting the key back in the ignition to drive into the officers? I don't know.
But what I do know is this: Videos are generally like a mirror. They show you truth without any spin. If the officers' actions were justified, they should be happy a video exists to clear them of any wrongdoing. If the officers have something to hide, however, they might consider a different tactic, such as smashing people's cellphones.
The video from CNN:
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