City police and the moving picture

What's most troubling about the Baltimore Police Department's new rules regarding the public videotaping of police is that any new rules were required in the first place. The notion that some cadre of uniformed officers — perhaps even a majority — mistakenly believed until recently they have every right to confiscate the cell phone and delete the recordings of someone who did nothing more than tape an arrest in a public place is chilling to say the least.

Not that one expects a city police officer to be a Constitutional scholar, but this isn't a Harvard Law School moment. The First Amendment is not a right bestowed upon a select few with press passes but to every citizen of the United States, and one likes to think that includes the residents of the Patapsco River drainage basin.


Thank Christopher Sharp for dragging the department into the age of the moving picture, let alone the 21stcentury. The Howard County resident sued the department after his cell phone was seized and all his recordings deleted at the Preakness Stakes after he taped an arrest. His lawsuit has been supported by both the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and theU.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. A U.S. District Court judge chose not to dismiss the lawsuit Monday morning and the case is going forward.

One can only imagine the thought-process that would lead a police officer to take such an extraordinary action in the age of viral videos on the Internet. How about a desire not to be embarrassed as happened to the officer who lost his job for berating a skateboarder, a moment that was captured for posterity and seen around the globe?


With some effort, one might envision a moment in which a private citizen taping an arrest in a public venue would not be in the public interest. Perhaps if it might compromise an undercover officer or informant (although even then, erasing the recording on the spot would be unthinkable).

But it's far easier to see how leaving Mr. Sharp, or any other person with a cell phone, alone would not only allow the department to meet its basic Constitutional obligations but might actually assist police. Such recordings might absolve officers from charges of misconduct, provide crime scene evidence or provide useful corroboration at trial.

In that light, it's unfortunate that within hours of the new rules becoming official, another police taping was thwarted by officers. When someone tried to tape police handcuffing a suspect in Federal Hill early Saturday, he was allegedly told to move along or be arrested for loitering. That's quite a loophole in the new policy if officers can get away with exploiting it.

While there are moments when police should issue citations for loitering, using the law to threaten someone with a cell phone camera in hand suggests "crowd control" wasn't exactly the goal. Would an officer treat a local TV reporter and crew similarly? Only if he or she wanted to land on the evening news.

What city police officers need to understand — aside from the rights of U.S. citizenship, of course — is that such behavior reflects incredibly badly on them. Mr. Sharp's cell phone may seem a minor matter to those dealing with the life and death decisions involved in combating violent crime on a daily basis, but it sends a message that officers consider themselves above the law.

Confiscating property without a warrant, denying free speech, those are the actions of thugs in some despotic regime. The department may have taken corrective action, however belatedly, but have officers learned their lesson or just changed their tactics?

If police continue to harass those who are behaving peaceably within their rights — and likely acting in the public interest to boot — then they had better be prepared for the consequences. Chief among them is a loss of public trust.

Not completely. Not immediately. But little by little, the public loses faith, and the thin blue line that separates the law-abiding from total anarchy is undermined.


In the meantime, CommissionerFrederick H. Bealefeld IIIought to consider a variation on the traditional ride-along program in which private citizens spend a day with police. Perhaps police might consider riding along with the media, Internet bloggers or just private citizens to understand how their behavior is seen from this side of the camera lens.