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News Opinion Editorial

Camera-shy police [Editorial]

Say what you will about the abilities of the Baltimore area's law enforcement community, but they sure know how to star in a viral video. The latest is a Baltimore County auxiliary police sergeant who gave an exceedingly hard time to a 21-year-old college student for simply videotaping arrests at a late-night disturbance last weekend in Towson.

You've probably seen it by now, as the segment is all the rage on social media. It's clear the officer believes taking a video with a cellphone is tantamount to interfering with arrests. The videographer, University of Maryland Baltimore County student Sergio Gutierrez of Sparks, is threatened with arrest, told he has no rights and ordered to shut up and to walk away — and in rather impolite language. To his credit, the young man doesn't back off and calmly asserts his free speech rights.

The incident drew the kind of national attention heaped on the infamous Inner Harbor skateboarding video from 2007 during which a city officer harangues a group of youngsters, grabs a board and puts a kid briefly in a headlock. Officer Salvatore ("I'm a man, not a dude") Rivieri lost his job over the incident, and the firing was later upheld by the courts. The officer's behavior was so over-the-top that it proved a huge embarrassment for the department.

But the more apt comparison is to the case of Anthony John Graber III, the Harford County motorcyclist stopped at gunpoint for speeding on I-95 by Maryland State Police in 2010. Mr. Graber used a helmet-mounted camera to record the police stop, and his home was subsequently raided once the video showed up on YouTube.

Mr. Graber ended up in court where the American Civil Liberties Union successfully defended him against criminal charges related to the taping. His case made clear that a citizen has every right to videotape police in a public setting (assuming they are not violating the law in some other way). That was nearly four years ago. But apparently, the word hasn't filtered down to quite everyone who wears a badge in this state.

But let's also give Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson some credit. He quickly recognized that problem and made clear to the public and to his police force that such behavior was "incorrect, inappropriate and unnecessary." The incident is now under investigation, and it's entirely possible a formal complaint will be lodged against the sergeant.

Before people start piling on county police too badly, however, a few things should be made clear. First, the officer in question was an unpaid volunteer. So-called "auxiliary" police are usually called in to help out with traffic control or staffing large outdoor festivals or events, not so often to make arrests in the middle of the night.

We should also be reluctant to draw too many conclusions from one videotape. What happened before or after and what others might have seen are not known. Not that we have any reason to believe the tape is misleading, but this was 1:45 a.m. on Sunday, a crowd had formed and police were dealing with some difficult behavior (charges of disturbing the peace, assault and some drug counts were the result). The emotions of the moment might have gotten the better of them.

Still, the videotape may actually serve a purpose if it reminds officers in Baltimore County and elsewhere that you go after criminals, not people using their cellphones as cameras. Had the student's video merely captured the arrests, we seriously doubt it would have gotten much, if any, attention on the Internet.

But a police officer in uniform acting like he gets to single-handedly suspend Constitutional rights whenever he feels like it? That's going to collect a lot of viewership and for good reason. People expect a level of professionalism from local law enforcement, not someone acting like they just walked off the set of "Dukes of Hazzard." The idea that police of any stripe regard themselves as so omnipotent is more than a little scary.

Officers have the authority to tell crowds blocking traffic or interfering with police work to disperse, to keep spectators at a reasonable distance from a crime scene and to arrest people who actually violate the law. They don't have the right to hassle people for taking pictures or videos with their cellphones. If the trend continues, it's only going to get the ACLU more work and cost a lot of departments their credibility with the public.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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