Images of police shootings are now commonplace. Some are chaotic. Some are grainy. But the rules about recording them are pretty clear.
Generally, citizens have a right to record police activities unless they are interfering with legitimate police work.
The issue was brought to the fore again this week with a police shooting in Baton Rouge, La., and then a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis during which a woman live-streamed a police encounter that left her boyfriend dead.
“We do see more and more instances where individuals are aware of their rights and calmly assert their rights,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. “There are police chiefs and police departments that are aware of this and respect it, and there are some that will not respect those rights.”
After a law enforcement crackdown in the wake of protests over the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., the ACLU went to federal court to successfully protect the rights of citizens and professional journalists.
▪ If you are in a public place, you have a right to take images of anything in public view, including police activities.
▪ If you are on private property, the owner may set rules about taking images.
▪ Police may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photos or video without a warrant. They may not delete your images.
▪ Police may order citizens to stop activity that truly interferes with legitimate law enforcement activities.
The ACLU advises citizens to be assertive of their rights but to remain polite and to not physically resist an officer.
That was key to the way Diamond Reynolds reacted as her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was dying in the car seat next to her in Falcon Heights, Minn. That and images of police shooting Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge have brought citizens’ rights to record police to the fore in recent days.
On Thursday morning, Missouri Rep. Randy Dunn, a Kansas City Democrat, expressed anger on his Facebook page over seeing black people “mowed down for senseless reasons by the very people who are supposed to protect them.”
He said later he had not been surprised that Reynolds, who broadcast Castile’s death using Facebook Live, had chosen to capture the traumatic experience. But he was shocked by how graphic the images were.
The majority of police officers are “good people doing a difficult job,” he said. But the prevalence of officer-involved shootings involving African-Americans has heightened fears of interaction with law enforcement, and taking video of encounters can be seen as a means of protection.
“I do think people see social media and video phones as a tool to protect themselves,” Dunn said, “and ensure that at least from their perspective that their story is told truthfully.”
The tool doesn’t save the lives of men like Castile and Sterling, he pointed out. But video footage, whether taken by onlookers or those interacting with police, is important because it offers perspectives that don’t necessarily come from a law enforcement dashboard or body camera.
“We don’t always get the full story from the side and perspective of the victim,” Dunn said. “It allows people to ensure their side of the story is told.”
Patrol officers, as well as police cadets at the regional police academies, do not receive specialized training on how to respond when a civilian or bystander whips out a cellphone camera and begins recording.
Instead, they are reminded to assume they are always being watched and their interactions with the public are constantly being recorded.
“It is just a way of life,” said Riverside Police Chief Greg Mills. “You are always subject to being filmed out there on your job, and the people doing the filming have a right to do that just as the news (media) would.
“You need to be aware of that and you need to act appropriately, not because you are being filmed but it is your job.”
Yet officers have to make split-second decisions, so they cannot risk being distracted by someone recording their actions.
“They are focused on their safety, their partner’s safety, the safety of the community, and are not focused on someone filming, videotaping or watching them,” said Sgt. Kari D. Thompson, Kansas City police spokeswoman.
It is likely that the police shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights have been discussed among officers, but the Kansas City department has not issued any directives regarding those incidents, Thompson said.
In many cases, officers would welcome someone videotaping during a traffic stop or while they are making an arrest. There have been circumstances where an officer has been cleared of wrongdoing.
“It is not a bad thing. It helps out both sides,” said Kansas City Police Officer Darin Snapp. “Cellphone videos along with police dashcam are excellent tools to keep both sides honest, not only the officers.”
Rusty Sullivan, director of the Public Safety Institute on the Metropolitan Community College-Blue River campus, agreed that as long as the police officer is doing his or her job, a video is going to help the police far more than it will hurt them.
In recent years, Kansas City police officers and training recruits are taught to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to avoid situations where they have to shoot someone who is threatening them.
Last year, Gov. Jay Nixon made new appointments to the Missouri Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission who were tasked with recommending new training goals on how peace officers respond to dangerous situations, avoid racial profiling and take care of themselves.
The recent shootings have created a greater sense of urgency to implement those changes statewide, said the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, a member of the POST Commission.
“I think something has to change,” Cleaver said. “Black people are afraid to be stopped by the police. Because you can cooperate with them and it can still end tragically.
“I think the relationship with the black community and law enforcement has been strained for so long that there’s instant tension no matter what the situation is. And that’s what we have to try to change,” he said.
Filming police interaction is a far cry from the dramatic overhaul needed to address systemic racial issues in the justice system, Dunn said, but he believes it’s beneficial for everyone.
“I would encourage folks to film interactions that they may have with police officers,” Dunn said. “It’s a way to protect themselves, and quite frankly it can help protect the police if something goes awry.”