On Cops and Cameras
Acton Institute Powerblog

On Cops and Cameras

Gizmodo has an intriguing post about attempts to regulate and even criminalize photography. As Wendy McIlroy reports, “In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.” She goes on to detail some of the exceptions and caveats, noting,

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

It is simply amazing the level of accountability and transparency that can now be achieved because of technological advancement. Certainly the Founders didn’t imagine that video recordings would ever exist, much less become important sources of evidence in legal cases.

Are there any compelling reasons that the burden of proof should be on the photographer rather than the law enforcement officer in these kinds of situations? McIlroy continues, observing “recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.”

Merely using a camera certainly doesn’t entitle you to do anything you want and expect protection under the First Amendment. But in clearly non-aggressive instances, where police are acting in public and there is the clear potential for recorded data to be used as exculpatory or convicting evidence, the public’s right to accountability and transparency should be respected. Again, writes McIlroy, “Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop.”

It’s of course understandable why officers wouldn’t like being recorded, any more than the average person would like to be recorded when doing their jobs. But the job of a law enforcement official isn’t the same as that of an accountant, an editor, or a janitor. It’s a public service position, and one that acts officially and with government sanction in public.

Maybe in our technological age law enforcement officials should increasingly expect to be recorded. Or at least always act as if what they are doing is subject to public scrutiny.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.