Ever since the advent of the camera phone Americans have taken it upon themselves to record their interactions with police. This has added a level of accountability to policing that there otherwise would not be. Think Rodney King, Walter Scott, and other cases in which officers have been held accountable and convicted for what amounts to violating citizens' civil rights. This is the kind of outcome we would all hope for when we film police officers “doing bad acts.”
The Rodney King case brought to light for the world to see a savage beating by police of an unarmed and submissive suspect while the Walter Scott case exposed an officer shooting an unarmed man in the back as he fled the scene. There are hundreds, if not thousands of videos on YouTube and other social media platforms that have some variation of the title, “COP GETS OWNED BY . . . ” you fill in the blank.” For some reason there's always a phrase about someone “owning” the cop. I don't get it.
To be clear, you are allowed to film the police. But beware because as the title says, when you engage in this kind of conduct, it may not turn out like you think it should, or as it turns out in the video and you could end up spending time in jail, or worse. The biggest take away from this post is; tread lightly when filming the police and please don't be unduly influenced by these types of videos.
I watched and analyzed more than 30 such videos researching for this post. And I just kept envisioning how easily the situation could have gotten out of hand and turned out much worse. In a recent post I discussed at length the concepts of articulable reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and totality of circumstances. These concepts often are central themes in such videos. I invite my readers to watch them carefully and realize three things. First, the vast majority of police/citizen interactions, particular traffic stops, are uneventful. Second, if you feel that you're being profiled or unfairly stopped, just realize that you will not necessarily know all the information that the cop knows, i.e. totality of the circumstances. She may have a very legitimate reasonable suspicion that warrants further investigation.
And finally, it's ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS best to cooperate. Even if the cop is dead wrong and you're right, you simply are not going to win your case there on the side of the road or at the scene.
Video #1 - Two buddies are driving down the highway and being followed by a patrol car. They're not speeding and it's clear they've committed no other traffic violation. So why did the officer follow them and execute a stop? We learn that the two were parked outside of some factory or plant and had gone there in response to an ad for a job. The factory happened to be closed and since the officer probably regularly patrols the area, he likely knew that business was closed when he spotted them parked there. An observant officer would wonder what's going on and stop the two to conduct a preliminary investigation.
The men had a perfectly plausible explanation as to why they were parked there and once the officer was satisfied with their explanation, presumably they were free to go. Although I can't say that with 100% certainty because the video doesn't show that. Lesson learned? Don't assume you're being stopped for no reason. There could be a valid reasonable suspicion the officer has based on the totality of the circumstances, circumstances of which you may not be aware.
Video #2 – A “police auditor” spots an officer parked in a clearly marked fire lane. Only emergency vehicles are allowed to park in a fire lane “during emergencies.” The auditor was absolutely right. It is our duty as citizens to hold our police accountable and the actions the police auditor engaged in, filming the police, is constitutionally protected. However, we sometimes forget that none of our constitutional rights are unlimited. It's the reason you could be charged with inciting a riot if you yell fire in a crowded theater, why you cannot own any type of weapon you want, and why some statements can be used against you even before your Miranda rights have been read to you.
There are probably two crimes the auditor could have been charged with. Obstruction of a police investigation and possibly for filming the police computer, which contains sensitive criminal information. The officer should not have been parked in the fire lane because he was not responding to an emergency. And, for the most part, neither the police nor the auditor, acted inappropriate in their interactions with each other. Although, in my opinion, the police auditor came very close to giving the officers reason to arrest him. In the end, this may not have been the best use of the auditor's time. It definitely was not the best use of the officers' time. A sergeant and three other officers were dispatched to the scene. In essence, the police auditor seemed concerned about the fact that he, as a taxpayer, pays the officer's salaries, but it didn't dawn on him that this incident was not the best use of taxpayer money. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to take a picture of the violation and make an official complaint. Lesson learned? Not every mundane, minor police infraction needs to be filmed.
Video #3 – The narrator of this video praised the kid (Jack) for “standing up to the police.” He actually says in the video that “Jack's grasp of individual rights and basic constitutional concepts is something we can all learn from.” I hope there weren't other 15-year olds watching this and thinking, “the next time a cop confronts me I'm going to do exactly what Jack did.” These videos never seem to address what the citizen did wrong. It's worth remembering that police are professionally trained to handle confrontation and crisis situations. With rare exception, the average citizen is not. The average citizen is going to react emotionally, be indignant, be verbally abusive, and sometimes get into a physical confrontation with the officer because he (the citizen) is not professionally trained to handle the situation.
The officers received a call about a confrontation between Jack's dad and his neighbor. Apparently, the two have a history of “not getting along” so much so that Jack's dad has had to take out a restraining order against the neighbor. The police were told that a gun was involved in the confrontation, presumably Jack's dad was the one reported to have the gun. This information may be incorrect but of course there's no way for the police to know that going into the situation.
At the start of the video we see two officers heading into Jack's apartment to confront his dad. Jack, with cell phone in hand, follows closely behind telling the officers not to go into his house. Had Jack continued to interfere he would have been arrested. Of course, the narrator didn't mention this at all. Jack's dad clearly resists as he's being taken out of the house. No mention of that by the narrator either. We hear Jack saying that the cops entered the house without a search warrant.
Please see Blog Post #1 for the definition of Probable Cause. If the neighbor is truly the bad guy in this scenario and simply swatted Jack's dad, then I'll revert to my earlier advice. You are simply not going to win your case at the scene. Jack's dad should have remained calm, not resisted, followed all the officer's commands and explained what happened. He may not have even been arrested in that scenario. Oh yeah, and he should have ordered Jack to keep filming, but not get close to the police. Things could have turned out much worse, both Jack and his dad could have been arrested. And Jack could have been seriously injured if the officer was forced to take him down. Lesson learned? Very few 15-year olds know constitutional law very well.
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