Video recording police officers making arrests, writing traffic citations, or even interacting with citizens in non criminal settings has been a hot topic in the last few years throughout Maryland, and especially in Baltimore City. Many police departments around the country have dashboard cameras which record traffic stops, DUI arrests, and even automobile searches for weapons and drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. However, in Maryland most police departments do not record their officers’ interactions with civilians, and even with automatic dash dams the majority of police and civilian interactions go unrecorded. As a result, police officers have little checks on their power and can abuse their authority when interacting with civilians. In recent years though the public has fought back with an unlikely weapon, using cell phones to keep police officers under raps.
Almost every cell phone sold in America has a camera, and citizens fed up with police abuse of power are using these cameras as a check on police behavior. Countless abusive police interactions have shown up on YouTube, and an abundance of civil lawsuits have been filed by lawyers against police departments. Not surprisingly, police officers in Baltimore City and other jurisdictions in Maryland have not taken a liking to this new trend. There have been various documented incidents of police officers becoming angry upon seeing that they are being recorded by civilians, and some of these incidents end up in an illegal arrest not for committing a crime, but for simply documenting an officers actions. This issue has garnered national media attention and in the past year a civil lawsuit against the Baltimore City police caught the eye of the United States Department of Justice or DOJ.
The Maryland Attorney General had already issued an opinion advising police departments around the state that the public has a right to video record police during public interactions. This opinion prompted Baltimore police to issue an order directing its officers not to infringe upon the public’s right to record its officers. However, a recent civil lawsuit has called the Baltimore police department’s order into question, and the Department of Justice is watching closely. The civil lawsuit was filed by a Maryland lawyer on behalf of a Howard county man who was using a cell phone to video record the Baltimore police arrest a woman at the 2010 Preakness. Baltimore police allegedly confiscated the camera phone and deleted the photographs. In response to the civil lawsuit, a lawyer from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division filed an 11 page letter with the court stating that Baltimore police policies do not adequately protect a civilian’s right to record police and civilian interactions that take place in public.
The letter specifically deals with the Baltimore police department citing interference with police duties as justification for stopping or prohibiting video recording of its officers. Police lobbyists have also argued that video recording should be limited due to safety concerns of officers, but it is the vague interference with police duties excuse that has irked the DOJ. The Department of Justice stated that the Baltimore police department must specifically define actions that qualify as interfering with police duties rather than just using this as a blanket reason for limiting the public’s use of video recording. The DOJ also stated that the public is entitled to express criticism of police officers, as well as curse and even use obscene gestures. It is clear that the public’s right to video record officers is a civil right that will continue to be protected, and Baltimore police will face more scrutiny if their polices are not modified to support this right.
DOJ seeks to tighten Baltimore policy on recording police, baltimoresun.com, May 17, 2012.