Rewind 2017: Establishing the right to record the police

In this series of blog posts called Rewind 2017, we’re taking a look back at some of the highlights and the challenges of defending civil liberties over the last 12 months.

Amanda Geraci was shoved against a wall and restrained by the neck by a Philadelphia police officer for photographing the arrest of a protester.

Recording the police performing their duties in public spaces is your constitutional right. This is how ordinary citizens empower themselves, protect themselves and others, exercise a check on the police, and hold them accountable to the public they serve.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed five lawsuits in recent years against the Philadelphia Police Department for the illegal practice of retaliating against civilians who attempt to record officers. The two most recent cases led to a landmark decision this summer from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that recognized that the First Amendment protects the right to record the police. It was the first time that this appeals court had issued such a ruling, joining five other federal appeals courts that have reached the same conclusion.

The two cases that led to the Third Circuit court’s ruling were filed on behalf of Amanda Geraci — a Philadelphia woman who was forcefully restrained across the neck by a police officer in 2012 as she attempted to photograph the arrest of a protester outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center — and Rick Fields — a Temple student who was handcuffed, arrested, and prosecuted for photographing on-duty police officers in 2013. The two cases were consolidated and argued together. The appeals court issued its opinion in July, and in December, the city settled the lawsuits, at a cost of $250,000.

The incidents with Geraci and Fields contradicted formal PPD policies. In 2011, then-PPD Commissioner Charles Ramsey issued a memo informing all police personnel that while on the job and in a public space, they

should reasonably anticipate and expect to be photographed, videotaped and/or be audibly recorded by members of the general public or individuals temporarily detained. As such, police personnel shall not interfere with any member of the general public or individuals temporarily detained from photographing, videotaping, or audibly recording police personnel while conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space.

The memo also advised department personnel that they cannot damage or destroy any recording devices or images. In 2012, the memo was reworked and elevated to a formal directive that acknowledged that the First Amendment protects the right to record the police.

Clearly, a number of officers in the department never read the memo. The PPD failed to do any meaningful training on these policies, failed to supervise officers to ensure compliance, and failed to discipline officers who violated the policies.

The photograph taken by Rick Fields.

Society has come a long way since the days of the 1991 Rodney King beating, when George Holliday, a man armed with a Sony camcorder, witnessed and caught the brutal attack on the 25-year-old black motorist by LAPD officers. The video went viral — via the press — in the days before social media and mainstream use of the internet.

Today, smartphone cameras are ubiquitous, enabling anyone to capture these public employees in action — whether recorded or live and in real time — and share the digital footage with a wider audience. These devices are one of the best tools available today for holding the police accountable for how — and against whom — they use their power.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has made documenting police activity easier with Mobile Justice PA, a free smartphone app to hold law enforcement accountable by allowing people to automatically record and upload videos of public encounters with police to the ACLU-PA.

Part of living in a free and open society rather than a police state means shining a light on what the government does in our name. No longer can law enforcement conduct their business in the dark.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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