Who will watch the watchers? In a world of ubiquitous, hand-held digital cameras, that’s not an abstract philosophical question. Police everywhere are cracking down on citizens using cameras to capture breaking news and law enforcement in action.
In 2009, police arrested blogger and freelance photographer Antonio Musumeci on the steps of a New York federal courthouse. His alleged crime? Unauthorized photography on federal property.
Police cuffed and arrested Musumeci, ultimately issuing him a citation. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, he forced a settlement in which the federal government agreed to issue a memo acknowledging that it is totally legal to film or photograph on federal property.
Although the legal right to film on federal property now seems to be firmly established, many other questions about public photography still remain and place journalists and citizens in harm’s way. Can you record a police encounter? Can you film on city or state property? What are a photographer’s rights in so-called public spaces?
These questions will remain unanswered until a case reaches the Supreme Court, says UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, founder of the popular law blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Until then, it’s up to people to know their rights and test the limits of free speech, even at the risk of harassment and arrest.
Who will watch the watchers? All of us, it turns out, but only if we’re willing to fight for our rights.
Produced by Hawk Jensen and Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Jim Epstein and Jensen. About 7.30 minutes.
Sadly, stories about police discrimination and the Tasering of 10-year old girls are frighteningly commonplace these days. Officers in San Jose, CA have a particularly bad reputation, which is one reason why they are being outfitted with head-mounted cameras.
The kit includes a camera, a control piece and a computer that hangs from the belt. Every time an officer interacts with a civilian, they are required to activate the AXON camera. Afterward, the officer can switch the camera to a “buffer” mode that records limited video, or turn it off completely. At the end of a shift, the video will be downloaded to a central server.
A leading critic of the department welcomed the cameras as a tool to provide useful evidence, but dismissed their significance as a solution to rocky police-community relations.
“The AXON project is unfortunately a positive thing right now because the level of distrust is so high,” said Raj Jayadev, director of the community organization Silicon Valley De-Bug. “But it doesn’t address the more fundamental problem: What stereotypes police may carry when they see people of color on the street and make assumptions about character.
Since an officer can simply turn off the device at anytime, I don’t think AXON will put an end to police abuse. However, keeping a record of these interactions can do nothing but help the evidence gathering process. Trials financed by Taser are currently underway, but reports estimate that a full-fledged deployment in the San Jose area would cost upwards of $4 million in taxpayer money.
I’m not OK with the price tag (there shouldn’t be one) but it may help restrain some officers and thats something I can support. Likely it will be impossible to quantify the benefits of this program though.
When undercover detectives busted Jose and Maximo Colon last year for selling cocaine at a seedy club in Queens, there was a glaring problem: The brothers hadn’t done anything wrong.
But proclaiming innocence wasn’t going to be good enough. The Dominican immigrants needed proof.
“I sat in the jail and thought … how could I prove this? What could I do?” Jose, 24, recalled in Spanish during a recent interview.
As he glanced around a holding cell, the answer came to him: Security cameras. Since then, a vindicating video from the club’s cameras has spared the brothers a possible prison term, resulted in two officers’ arrest and become the basis for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The officers, who are due back in court June 26, have pleaded not guilty, and New York Police Department officials have downplayed their case.
But the drug corruption case isn’t alone.
On May 13, another NYPD officer was arrested for plotting to invade a Manhattan apartment where he hoped to steal $900,000 in drug money. In another pending case, prosecutors in Brooklyn say officers were caught in a 2007 sting using seized drugs to reward a snitch for information. And in the Bronx, prosecutors have charged a detective with lying about a drug bust captured on a surveillance tape that contradicts her story.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen drug and gun charges against a man last month when a narcotics officer was accused of making up information on search warrants.
The revelations in New York have triggered internal affairs inquiries, transfers of commanders and reviews of dozens of other arrests involving the accused officers. Many drug defendants’ cases have been tossed out. Others have won favorable plea deals.
The misconduct “strikes at the very heart of our system of justice and erodes public confidence in our courts,” said Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson.
Despite the fallout, authorities describe the corruption allegations as aberrations in a city where officers daily make hundreds of drugs arrests that routinely hold up in court. They also note none of the cases involved accusations of organized crews of officers using their badges to steal or extort drugs or money for personal gain — the story line of full-blown corruption scandals from bygone eras.
Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agrees the majority of narcotics officers probably are clean. But he also believes the city’s unending war on drugs will always invite corruption by some who don’t think twice about framing suspects they’re convinced are guilty anyway.
Prohibition creates a black market and a black market creates a distorted market situation waiting to be exploited. And those who are most incentivized to exploit it are those closest to it with the most power to cover up their actions.
A legal fog pervades the corridors and lobbies of New Hampshire’s courts.
The rules for recording public hearings in courtrooms are relatively clear: The Supreme Court says it’s allowed unless “there is a substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other harmful consequence.”
But those foggy gray areas beyond the courtrooms remain untouched by state law.
Snapping a photo or recording video in these places is permitted in some district courts and prohibited in others, at the presiding judge’s discretion.
Keene District Court Judge Edward J. Burke banned photography outside the courtroom in February in an effort to protect juveniles and victims of crimes walking through the lobby from being caught on film without their consent.
“All the district court judges who have had this issue come up in their courthouse have thought about it and we’re trying to deal with it as fairly and responsibly as we can,” state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura Kiernan said. “It’s the privacy rights of citizens that we’re concerned with here.”
On the other side of the issue, a group of activists with the Free State Project — an effort to recruit 20,000 people who prefer limited government to live in New Hampshire — are riled because they believe their right to record in a public place is being violated.
If the marijuana protest and guerilla gardening in downtown Keene failed to raise many eyebrows, the sight of a handful of handcuffed Free Staters being taken out of the city’s District Court earlier this week surely had plenty of residents scratching their heads.
The reader comments piled up under online coverage of Monday’s protest at the District Court on The Sentinel’s Web site, where some people ridiculed and criticized the Free Staters for wasting taxpayer dollars and the time of city police officers.
“Time and again, the Free Staters come off as insolent children who stomp their feet and hold their breath until their faces turn blue because they don’t like being told what to do,” commenter Arch wrote.
The Free Staters hit back, outnumbering the opposition with post after post, saying that District Court Judge Edward J. Burke had blatantly stomped on their personal freedoms when he banned the use of video cameras in the District Court lobby.
“What many commenters here are showing is how slavery is enforced. Slavery was enforced by the slaves themselves. It isn’t the government that keeps people down — it is the people,” wrote commenter Frake.
The District Court blowup unfolded during the arraignment of Manchester videographer Dave Ridley, who was arrested in March because he refused to turn off his video camera in the court lobby. Ridley and others showed up to cover the arraignment of Free Stater and marijuana activist Andrew Carroll.
Carroll was arrested in January when he stood in Keene’s Railroad Square carrying a small amount of marijuana while surrounded by Free Staters and curious onlookers.
Though state law allows media representatives to record public court proceedings in most cases, lobbies and hallways are gray areas. Police officials say there is a fear that rape victims and juveniles could be captured on film while in these areas, which are generally off-limits for videotaping and photography, according to state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura A. Kiernan.
The NYPD wants to cloak midtown with the same security blanket it rolled out for lower Manhattan: camera license plate readers, and radiation and bio scanners.
Those measures covering Manhattan south of Canal St. will slowly be applied to midtown, from 34th to 59th Sts., river to river, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the City Council Public Safety Committee.
“We want to take that model, protecting the 1.7 square miles south of Canal and replicate it in midtown Manhattan,” Kelly said after the hearing Tuesday.
The NYPD wants $21 million in federal homeland security dollars to put toward the midtown project, estimated to cost $58 million.
Modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel,” the NYPD opened its coordination center last November, with cops monitoring feeds from 300 cameras and 30 mobile license plate readers in lower Manhattan.
The 24-hour center, based in a nondescript Broadway building, keeps tabs on high-profile terror targets such as the World Trade Center site and Wall Street.
Plans are underway to have some 3,000 cameras, public and privately owned, and as many as 96 fixed license-plate readers feeding into the center south of Canal St.
The NYPD is also looking to install permanent license plate scanners at each of the 20 crossings into Manhattan as part of an elaborate new safety scheme.
Police also want to install sensors to detect biological and radiological weapons.
The lower Manhattan plan costs an estimated $92 million. The department has already invested about $84 million to secure Manhattan south of Canal St., river to river.
It’s getting ridiculous in Manhattan. They recently opened the new 1, R, W station downtown at the South Ferry. Since then the NYPD has had a table set up to search people at least 50% of the time I’ve left work. Far more often than the old 1 station. I’ve yet to be stopped but mostly because I come in from behind them and they focus on the new entrance rather than the opened area coming from the R,W entry. I still plan on pressing my luck by informing the officer that since I’ve been denied entrance to the 1 I’ll take the R.