What You Need to Know When Recording the Police

August 31st 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

The American conversation about police brutality and misconduct is not new, but advances in technology have helped move it to the forefront of national attention.

Since the summer of 2014, a series of viral cellphone videos have documented incidents of police brutality​, which has raised awareness about the reality of police violence and brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront.

"We would not have the current momentum and the current scrutiny of police if we did not have all those heart-wrenching videos out there between police and mostly people of color," Mary Catherine Roper, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania told ATTN:. "That has really changed the conversation and opened it up, and it has shown white people what people of color have known for years about the police."

Beyond holding police accountable after an incident, there could also be another use for cellphone video: preventing interactions with the police from escalating.

That's the reason entrepreneur Greg Selkoe, 41, developed the new video recording app Safecaster, along with Mark Slater and Ben Sack.

Safecaster app for cellphones.

Selkoe was in the hospital in Boston during the racial unrest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Minneapolis, Minnesota that followed the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and then the the killing of five police officers in Dallas.

"There was constant news of what was going on in Baton Rouge and Dallas right when I was trying to unplug," he said. "There were a bunch of high profile things that happened all in a row."

When Slater came to visit him in the hospital they started talking about the role technology could play in police reform, and along with Sack they developed a free cell phone app to stream video of police interactions.

Once the app is turned on, it streams a live feed to pre-selected friends or family members. It also provides a geolocation so the person receiving the stream knows where the police interaction is happening.

Safecaster app for streaming police interactions.

There is also a ghost mode that allows the app to discreetly record on the phone, but Selkoe hopes that there won't be a need to use it. He said in an ideal police interaction a Safecaster user would inform a police officer that he or she is recording, and as a result the user and police officer would be on their best behavior. "You would say 'I'm not planning to touch [the phone] or move it but my goal is just have a safe interaction with you," he said.

What are your rights to take video of the police?

Roper said that taking a video of a police officer in a public place is protected by the First Amendment.

"The courts have held that the First Amendment also protects expressive conduct and that actions are in essence speech," she said. "Creating a video of what your public servants are doing in public is an expression of free speech."

The ACLU of Pennsylvania also developed its own app for recording the police.

Mobile justice app.

However, a federal court decision in Fields v. City of Philadelphia in February, said that video recordings are not protected by the U.S. Constitution unless the recording is a criticism or a challenge to police conduct.

Roper said that decision shouldn't affect people's rights because the majority of courts agree that police recordings in public are free speech.

"Of course it's an expression of free speech but this one court held otherwise." she said. "This is not something anyone should see as changing the playing field."

Although Americans have a right to record police in public places, people should use common sense.

"If you're recording the police you need to make sure that your recording does not interfere with what the police are doing," she said. "Have some sense. You can't stand over an officer's shoulder; they're always concerned with being attacked because sometimes they are."

Roper gave one last warning about recording the police: only speak if needed and avoid vertical videos.

"A landscape view is able to capture much more," she said. "Don't talk too much. If you're talking people can't hear what's going on."

Retired Lt. Commander Diane Goldstein, formerly of the Redondo Beach Police Department and a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said that video recordings on body cameras and cell phones can be a useful tool but they're no "panacea" for criminal justice reform.

"You're only getting a limited view of what's going on," she said. "It's not going to tell you everything that happened." She warned that video is not a complete solution.

"I do believe there is a role in technology that can contribute to transparency in general," she said. "The most important thing to remember is that video cameras in the hands of citizens or law enforcement is a tool and that tool can be good and that tool can be bad. It depends on training, it depends on the situation."

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