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Citizens have a broad right to record police activity, it’s time officers get used to it | COMMENTARY

In this screenshot from a Harford County Sheriff's Office body camera footage, Senior Deputy Keith Jackson points his stun gun at SeanPaul Reyes, who was filming a traffic stop on Route 40 in Joppa last week. Reyes was arrested for obstruction and hindering. The sheriff’s office is conducting an administrative investigation following the incident.
In this screenshot from a Harford County Sheriff's Office body camera footage, Senior Deputy Keith Jackson points his stun gun at SeanPaul Reyes, who was filming a traffic stop on Route 40 in Joppa last week. Reyes was arrested for obstruction and hindering. The sheriff’s office is conducting an administrative investigation following the incident. (Screenshot from Harford County Sheriff's YouTube page)

Self-proclaimed “First Amendment auditor” SeanPaul Reyes found himself in handcuffs and sitting on the curb when he tried to film the traffic stop of another man in Harford County over the weekend. Body camera video posted to the Harford Sheriff’s Office Facebook page shows an encounter that escalated probably far more than it should have.

Senior Deputy Keith Jackson, as a second officer stands by, was getting ready to search the car of a 21-year-old, allegedly pulled over for speeding and found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana. Then Mr. Reyes approaches the area from a nearby gas station. Deputy Jackson orders him to stop, but he keeps coming forward until he gets to the sidewalk, which he declares a public space where he is free to stand. The officer asks Mr. Reyes to back up several times and pulls out his stun gun when Mr. Reyes doesn’t comply.

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In charging documents, Deputy Jackson said that Mr. Reyes was confrontational. But one could argue that the officer was also aggressive in his actions. The deputy also said Mr. Reyes approached from behind the police cars, even though video shows that Mr. Reyes was several feet away when Mr. Jackson noted his presence. It was not as if he was trying to sneak onto the scene. He had his cellphone out clearly recording, and he told the officer what he was doing; he says it’s something he does all over the country as part of a personal crusade to hold police accountable.

Should he have backed up when the officer asked him to? Probably. Did he look to be enough of a danger for a stun gun to be pulled? Not from the videotape that we saw. Annoying, maybe. Unwanted, definitely. He was not something officers want to deal with during an arrest, but it seemed like there could have been a better way to handle it.

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The Harford County Sherriff’s Office is conducting an administrative investigation into the incident, and we would hope they drop the charges of obstruction and hindering brought against Mr. Reyes. Mr. Jackson and other law enforcement are going to have to learn to keep their cool as recording arrests become the norm. The conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which relied heavily on footage from witnesses’ cellphones, showed that video is a powerful tool in combating police misconduct.

And people are well within their rights to record. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice reprimanded the Baltimore Police Department, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland, for failing to support citizens broad recording rights. Harford County’s policy is that filming is allowed by citizens “as long as their location, action or behavior” does not “create a legitimate, articulable threat to officer safety or the safety of others, or an unlawful hindrance to successful resolution of the law enforcement activity.” Further protections are coming, thanks to a law passed by Maryland lawmakers in the most recent legislative session, (House Bill 670), as part of landmark police reform. Under that law a police officer can’t prohibit recording as long as the citizen is acting “lawfully and safely.”

Videotaping certainly shouldn’t interfere with the an arrest or stop, but the police are given too much leeway in deciding how that is interpreted. Can an officer make a bystander go 100 feet away where videotaping might not capture much under the guise of being safe? Mr. Jackson tells Mr. Reyes he is allowed to video, but wants him to stand in a nearby parking lot, explaining that officers “drop a bubble on the area we are in” when conducting a stop.

Officers shouldn’t make it so difficult to videotape stops and arrests. If the Chauvins of the world are anomalies — bad apples — then most cops are doing the right thing and shouldn’t be bothered by recordings. Allowing it shows the police are willing to be transparent and helps build better relations with the community.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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