What You Should Know About Recording Police

by Elizabeth on April 22, 2013

in Criminal Justice

Many of us no longer feel like the police are here to protect us. As a collective, citizens are growing more and more suspicious and even afraid of police officers. When we see cases of police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement, it only makes us more wary of the badge. This distrust has led to citizens arming themselves with cameras—looking to hold cops accountable when it seems like the system won’t.

filmconstThe courts (and some police departments themselves) have said that the people can record officers while in the line of duty, that officers have no expectation of privacy while enforcing laws in public. While you may be apt to think this means you can record them without any problems, it might not be that simple.

Reason Magazine posted a great article with “7 Rules for Recording Police” in an effort to help citizens that want to keep the power of police in check. They point out that just last week the city of Boston paid out $170,000 in damages to a citizen who was arrested for recording a brutal arrest. That city’s police department and others are warning their officers to exercise restraint when being recorded.

Reason offers the following “rules” to help you keep your footage and avoid arrest:

  1.  “Know the Law (Wherever You Are)”: The laws on recording officers are slightly different from state to state. Most state laws say you are allowed to record as long as you don’t interfere with the police work. But before you press record, make sure you know the laws where you are.
  2. “Don’t Secretly Record Police”: Things are different when you are recording covertly. There are laws against that and though those laws are questionable and making their way through the court system as well, it’s safer to record out in the open.
  3. Know How to Respond to Cops: If a police officer asks what you are doing, you’ll likely get much further if you say something like “I’m not interfering; I’m exercising my right to publicly record you while in the line of duty” rather than something like “I’m making sure you are doing your job right.” Similarly, know your rights. Unless you are being detained, the cops have no right to hold you.
  4. “Don’t Share Your Video with Police”: Enough said.
  5. “Prepare to be Arrested”: It may very well happen that you are arrested for interfering or for disorderly conduct. The charges might not stick but for the cops, your arrest will solve their immediate problem.
  6. “Master Your Technology”: Use a password to protect entry into your phone. Find ways to immediately upload potentially damning video so it cannot be erased before you have a chance to share it.
  7. “Don’t Point Your Camera Like a Gun”: Don’t give them excuse to use force against you.


These rules might not keep you from being arrested but they will minimize your risks if you decide to document police in action. 


Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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