Young man taking picture on his mobile phone
Young man in green shirt taking picture on his mobile phone in the night time

On March 3, 1991, a man named George Holliday pulled out his camera and captured footage of Los Angeles police officers beating a man named Rodney King. The video is one of the first, and certainly the most famous example of an ordinary citizen recording a police encounter.

Besides galvanizing public opinion against the LAPD, many believe the tape also had the effect of establishing a confrontational relationship between the police and citizens with cameras that continues to this day. Smartphones have only served to provide more frequent recordings of police officers’ interaction with the public.

Police have been accused of targeting individuals recording their activities, often ordering them to stop filming. But can they do that? Do the police have the authority to order you to stop shooting video of their activities?

Video and the 1st Amendment

When ordinary citizens attempt to record police officers going about their business in public places it’s not uncommon for those officers to “order” people to stop filming and in some cases even arrest them if they refuse to stop. Because this behavior by law enforcement is so pervasive it causes many to conclude the police have the right to do this. What confuses the matter further is that some police officers will tell you the law states you have no right to film them. But you do.

The 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th circuit courts of appeal have all ruled that the 1st amendment protects the right of individuals to collect information regarding the public conduct of public servants. And that includes filming police going about their duties.

Changing Tactics

In response to the rash of court decisions establishing the right of citizens to record police activities some officers have changed tactics. Instead of arresting you for recording them they are concocting other charges to haul people in on.

As such, you may find yourself in jail for interfering with police procedures, resisting arrest or some other questionable charge instead.

Are There Any Circumstances When it is Forbidden to Videotape Police?

While it might seem there are no limitations on your right to record police activities in public spaces there are some instances when recording can be problematic and some instances when you can be banned from taking photos or video.

  • If your videotaping of police actually interferes with a police operation they can order you to cease. Police departments routinely invoke this exception in locking people up for videotaping them and judges are sometimes sympathetic to the police in such cases.
  • A judge in Pennsylvania ruled in 2016 that videotaping the police is not protected by the first amendment unless the videographer is doing so for some “expressive” purpose. Although the judge did not define what he believed constituted “expressive”.
  • In some states your right to videotape the police may run up against laws that make it illegal to record private conversations without a warrant. This could land you in hot water not just with the police but with others overheard talking on your video.
  • Police may confiscate your smartphone if they have reason to believe you recorded a crime by someone else while videotaping them. Although in their 2014 decision in the case of Riley v California the Supreme Court ruled the police cannot search the contents of your smartphone – regardless of why they confiscated it – without a search warrant.

How Should I Act if I’m Confronted by Police and Told to Stop Filming?

If a police officer tells you to stop filming him or her or tells you that you have no right to do so, it may be tempting to puff out your chest, pull out your copy of the Constitution and wave it in their face while screaming “All the odd-numbered circuit courts are on my side!”

But as you can see in this video not all police officers are fully informed of recent court decisions and a few seemingly don’t care. If your videotaping activity has gotten under the skin of an officer the best way to respond is typically to:

  • Stay polite – Instead of screaming “This video is going to ruin you!” try calmly saying “I believe I’m within my rights to videotape police activity in public places”.
  • Never raise your hand toward the officer – Don’t point at the police officer while yelling at them, give them the middle-finger salute or perform any type of threatening or aggressive action. All of these can be used as excuses to bring you in on a charge unrelated to videotaping.
  • Ask if you can leave – Unless the officer intends to detain you, you have a right to simply walk away from any police encounter. So, if the officer has engaged you and begun asking you questions and telling you to stop videotaping simply ask if you are free to go. If they say yes then quietly exit the scene.
  • If you are detained – If the officer says you are not free to leave and detains you, say in your most diplomatic voice that you do not consent to the officer searching through your phone/camera. If the police officer takes your phone and starts looking through it anyway repeat that you do not give consent for them to do that.

Let’s be Reasonable

While the courts may be on the side of the individual when it comes to videotaping the police little purpose is served by sticking a camera in a police officer’s face for no reason. A better idea is to reserve videotaping the police for those times when something is actually going down.

Remember that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated, even-tempered individuals tasked with a very dangerous and stressful job. A little respect from both sides can go a long way toward diffusing difficult situations.