Stop! Police! Hand Over That Cell Phone Camera

Stop! Police! Hand Over That Cell Phone Camera

Last summer, Tiawanda Moore and her boyfriend met with Chicago Police Department’s internal affairs department to file a complaint against an officer who Moore claimed came on to her, groped her, and then gave her his home phone number while he was at her home investigating an incident.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

Moore’s attorney said the CPD personnel she talked with to report the behavior discouraged her from filing a report, gave her the runaround, and used intimidation tactics to prevent her from reporting the officer.

The attorney said Moore, upset and concerned, began to surreptitiously record the interactions with the police on her BlackBerry device during the interview, violating an Illinois law that prohibits the recording of people without their consent, especially on-duty police offers.

She was arrested and charged with a Class 1 felony the afternoon she talked to the internal affairs officers to file the complaint against the police officer. And nearly a year later, her case is still pending.

Many see the incident as a compelling example of how laws like those in Illinois can disrupt citizen’s rights and keep police activity in the dark, where it may be rife for misconduct.

While many U.S. citizens cheer the Arab Spring protests and the citizen reporters who have documented the struggle with their cell phone cameras, few realize that the very activity they admire is one that might not be fully protected here at home.

Laws vary by state, but the majority says it is okay to record an on-duty officer as long as it doesn’t physically interfere with the officer. But that being said, there is a general backlash from law enforcement officials to the increasing number of smartphone-documented disputes with local police agencies, and Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois ban the practice completely.

Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Jim Pasco explained his opposition to mobile recordings of police, saying officers need to move quickly, without giving a lot of thought as to what the adverse consequences for them may be.

“Anything that’s going to have a chilling effect on an officer moving — an apprehension that he’s being videotaped and may be made to look bad — could cost him or some citizen their life,” Pasco said.

The question of how to balance the safety and efficacy of the police force with citizen’s concerns about possible police brutality is one that may rattle more national debate as the incidence of both events continue.

Civil liberty advocates maintain recording the police is a basic right and they say rising police brutality cases justify the practice.

They point to newspaper investigations revealing a 25 percent increase in excessive force cases involving police, prison guards and other law enforcement authorities between 2001 and 2007. The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project notes that 1,500 officers were involved in excessive force complaints last year.

Community organizations are actively turning to the cell phone as a catalyst for dialogue about police conduct, so much so that they are training members on how to use the cameras on their mobile phones, and even how to upload the videos to websites like YouTube.

In the 15 years since home video of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles captured the country’s attention, the availability of mobile recording devices has reached a saturation point.

In many cases, police charge citizens with catch-all offenses such as disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer and refusing to obey a lawful order, in efforts to discourage the use of cell phone recordings. But applicable laws tie back to decades-old wiretapping statutes that didn’t imagine cell phones equipped with cameras and audio recording devices.

These laws, when considering the modern day smartphone’s capabilities, don’t seem to remotely address the devices. But some states, like Illinois, are clear that recording an officer with a smartphone is a serious crime.

The Illinois case of the woman who was trying to report sexual misconduct of a police officer and ended up being charged with a felony for using her smartphone to record the interview — or another case like it — may be catalyst for a constitutional challenge. Such a case would allow a higher court to more thoroughly review and address the many issues mobile technology’s audio and video recording abilities create.

And, if a higher court overturns the Illinois law and takes the side of those who believe in an expansive First Amendment that includes the right to record police, the implications could extend beyond the Land of Lincoln.

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