Advice for Officers When Being Recorded

How to Handle People Who Attempt to Bait Police

Police Video
Police Officer Holds Reporter Back as a Person is Arrested in Their Home. Digital Vision/Getty Images

In the United States, police officers have seen a growing trend in which individuals and groups attempt to film police actions and encounters. While the video recording of police is not a new phenomenon, the increasing number of occurrences and the increasingly critical tone of the discussions about the resulting videos is creating an entirely new work environment for both veteran and rookie officers alike.

Few people are able to achieve the high ethical standard police and other criminal justice professionals are held to. Even fewer are accustomed to the level of scrutiny that law enforcement profession has garnered.

Still, a growing number of groups and individuals are filming police to document encounters, test officers’ competencies with regards to the law, expose possible corruption and hypocrisy and – more nefariously – to catch police in the wrong in order to be the next YouTube star or possibly win a big payout in a civil rights lawsuit.

Whatever their reasons, police have a duty to understand where their authority lies and how to control the situation – and themselves – during citizen encounters when they are being filmed.

Freedom of Speech Means Freedom to Film

Whether a traffic stop, an arrest situation, or just a bystander filming a police station or other law enforcement activity, what police need to understand before anything else is that citizens have a right to record them.

The internet is full of videos in which officers challenge people who are filming them, demanding their identification and to know what they are doing and why they are doing it. Some officers have even gone so far as to seize cameras and phones to delete videos or even arrest would-be cinematographers.

Unfortunately, this flys in the face of basic constitutional principles, affirmed in the 2011 United States 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Glik v. Cutliffe.

Essentially, so long as the person recording is not interfering with the police action, and so long as there is not a clear and articulable reason to fear for the safety of the officer or the public, people have a First Amendment right to film police actions.

For the officer, this means that if you see someone filming you – and it’s a good idea to always assume someone is – your best course of action is to let them unless they are directly interfering with your duties or are violating other laws.

Remain Kind and Courteous

As an officer, you have a responsibility to remain in control. Maintain control both of whatever situation you find yourself in and of yourself. While you may come across people who bait you and try to push your buttons just to get a rise out of you, avoid the temptation to sink to their level. Be polite, respectful and professional during all of your interactions, and you’ll reflect well on your department and the law enforcement profession as a whole.

Even during situations which call for the use of force, remember to revert to your training to control the situation as best you can.

Avoid using profanity or slurs while giving clear, loud and specific verbal commands, and take whatever action is necessary to keep yourself and other members of the public safe.

Enhance Your Education

Knowledge truly is power, and the more you know, the better off you’ll be. Your best defense against so-called police-baiters is to know the boundaries of your authority.

This doesn’t mean you need to be able to cite statute numbers and court rulings on the side of the road, but you most definitely need to be familiar with the provisions of the important cases you learned about in the police academy, like Terry v Ohio. Understand the meaning of reasonable suspicion and when you can and cannot lawfully detain someone.

Communication is Key

In all situations, communication is the key. Talk to the individuals and tell them what you are doing and why you are doing it.

When asked a question about your actions, don’t shy away form giving an honest answer.

For example, if a person is not free to go, then they’re being detained; there is not middle ground. There’s no reason to be afraid of the response, and your silence simply lends credence to the narrative of your culpability or incompetence.

Side with Safety

You have a responsibility to protect and uphold the Constitutional rights of all people, but that does not mean that you have to compromise officer safety to do so. Courts have consistently ruled that police officers have the authority to use whatever steps are reasonably necessary to keep themselves and others safe in the lawful performance of their duties.

In whatever you do, however you handle the situation, your guiding principles should be the safety and well-being of all parties involved. If you maintain your calm, remain professional and stay up to date on the laws and case laws affecting law enforcement, you can do your duty and remain true to the principles of policing in your community.