In Federal Hill, citizens allowed to record police - but then there's loitering..

[Note: The above video is embedded from Scott Cover's YouTube page]

When tech enterpreneuer Scott Cover happened upon a group of Baltimore Police standing over a handcuffed man near Cross Street market early Saturday, he pulled out his camera phone and started recording. Earlier in the day, he'd seen news reports of the Police Department affirming citizens' right to record officers performing their duties in public, and thought what was happening might - who knows - make for interesting video.

It's a scene that plays out regularly on Cross Street in Federal Hill as officers try to disperse late-night crowds. The officers will tell you that the patrons - with or without cameras - refuse to leave, and that everyone within earshot is an armchair expert on police techniques and seconds away from potentially inciting a riot. The bargoers will say the cops are often unnecessarily rude and aggressive, and don't want to be watched or filmed being unnecessarily rude and aggressive.

The officers on Saturday got Cover to stop filming, not by telling him to cease recording or seizing his camera. They told him he was loitering, and that he had to move along or risk arrest.

It's a caveat - some might say loophole - in the new general order publicly trotted out by police on Friday, three days before they're due in court to argue in a lawsuti brought by the ACLU that they are properly addressing citizen's right to record.

The new rule says that citizens have an "absolute right" to photograph or video record the enforcement actions taking place in public view. The chief legal counsel for the agency called it "an extension of the citizen's right to see. [An officer] wouldn't go up to a citizen at a crime scene and tell them to close their eyes, so the officer can't tell them they can't film."

But the rules also says that the person recording may not "violate any section of any law, ordinance, code or criminal article" - such as loitering - while doing so. The officers on Cross Street seemed aware of that fine print.

The police union says the officers acted appropriately and professionally; the ACLU says it shows there's more work to be done. "I think the inescapable takeaway is that the new policy,a nd any training that might have been conducted on the policy, have not been effective at changing the custom and practice of the BPD with respect to citizens' rights to record," said Deborah Jeon, of the Maryland ACLU.

Cover, a 30-year-old who recently moved to the city, said he was walking home when he saw about six officers standing over a hooded man who was handcuffed in front of the Eight by Ten club, near Magerk's. In the video, an officer who notices him seems aware but indifferent, saying, "Get some good footage, man. Get some good footage." But that draws the attention of a supervisor, who tells him to "take a walk."  Another says he is loitering.

"You guys do know you have a standing order to allow people to record?" Cover says.

"Nobody took your phone away, you can record all you want," another officer responds, as they push him up the street. After he walks up the street about 20 feet, four of the officers leave the man that is being arrested and approach him as he backpedals, one holding handcuffs.

"You've been asked to leave, how many times?" the supervisor says, then asks for his identification.

Cover said he recognizes that some people try to antagonize police and "push their buttons," but he said he was just recording on a whim. He said he wasn't looking for trouble and thinks police handled it wrong. 

"It's kind of like the Streisand effect," he said. "If they let me stand there, I probably would have got bored after 30 seconds and walked home, thinking I watched some poor schmuck get arrested."

Union president Robert F. Cherry said the officers did nothing wrong, and the new policy is flawed if it were to find them at fault.

"Long before cameras or phones or videotaping, when you're making an arrest, you want to make sure you watch what's going on around you," Cherry said. "I don't think they did anything wrong asking him to move along. They were professional, and told the individual he was being moved because he is loitering and not because he is videotaping."

"Our officers did everything by the book and should be commended for the way they handled the situation while remaining professional," he said.

He noted another video that surfaced about a month ago, where an officer is punched and tackled by a man while making an arrest. That, he said, shows that people who crowd around officers carrying out their duties are a potential danger.

But Deborah Jeon, of the Maryland ACLU, said the situation was under control and officers had no reason to shoo Cover away.

"There appears to be no crowd, and the man recording did nothing to distract police from their duties, or to cause a problem of any kind," Jeon said in an e-mail. "He was not hindering police in any discernible way.  He was aware of the new policy ... and politely cited it as a reason police should not threaten to arrest him because he was recording them.  And yet, the officers shooed him away and threatened to arrest him if he did not stop recording and leave the scene."

Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said he could not comment about whether the officers acted appropriately but said the department was aware of the video and was reviewing it.

Cover says he tried to make a complaint - as it turned out, the shift supervisor was one of the officers who pushed him from the scene - and would like an explanation and apology from the department. 

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