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Baltimore police violated rights of people to record them, DOJ report found

In one incident, an officer allegedly punched a 14-year-old boy who attempted to film an arrest on his cellphone.

In another, police arrested a man who had filmed an arrest — then deleted the video.

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Those incidents cited in the 163-page probe into Baltimore's policing practices contributed to one of the U.S. Justice Department's primary conclusions — that police in several instances likely violated First Amendment rights of citizens to record the police.

The report also said that in searching phones of people who recorded police, and deleting their video, police violated the Fourth and 14th amendments to the Constitution, provisions related to unwarranted searches and equal protection.

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The report alleges Baltimore police routinely violated constitutional rights of residents — primarily black citizens — by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force.

Those findings didn't surprise those who have long complained that officers target those who attempt to film the police.

"They're trying to dissuade the public from documenting them," said Jacob Crawford, a founding member of We Cop Watch, a national organization that operates in Baltimore and encourages its members to film police.

"Erasing anything is indicative of the police officer believing that the person captured them doing something wrong," Crawford said. "There's no reason to get into their phones."

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He said police have, over time, become more accustomed to being filmed, but he believes intimidation remains a problem.

In a 2015 example cited in the Justice Department report, a man began filming police as they arrested his friend outside a nightclub. The man told investigators that police grabbed his phone and placed him in handcuffs. He was charged with failure to obey an officer, trespassing and assault. The report said the man claimed to watch an officer go through his phone, and he told officials that when he was released, the video had been deleted. He was later acquitted.

"According to the man, the sole justification for his arrest was his attempt to record the officers' interaction with his friend," the report said.

The Justice Department alleged the incident appeared to violate the First, Fourth and 14th amendments and resulted in the destruction of valuable evidence.

Ralikh Hayes, a coordinator with the activist group Baltimore Bloc, said the incidents cited in the DOJ report jibe with his group's experience.

Hayes said when members of the group try to record police, officers often use tactics such as "trying to get people to back up really, really far or telling them to not record" or "refusing to give badge numbers or names."

Police, he said, try to make recording "as difficult as possible."

"I've seen them surround a scene so we can't get camera footage," he said. "It happens all the time."

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