The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is pointing to a D.C. police department’s recent order as a model for law enforcement agencies in the state that want to adopt clear policies dealing with private citizens’ right to record police actions.
“We think it is a very strong effort to protect citizen journalists,” Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland, said of general orders put into effect last week by the Metropolitan Police Department. “They are definitely on the right track and could create a good model for other law enforcement agencies.”
The adoption of the general orders was part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the D.C. chapter of the ACLU after a freelance photojournalist was detained while taking photos of a 2010 traffic stop in Georgetown. The lawsuit was dropped Monday, the same day the ACLU of Maryland issued letters urging law enforcement agencies in the state to review or adopt their own policies.
Lawsuits regarding interactions between citizens and officers whose actions they’ve recorded have popped up all over the country with the pervasive use of cellphone cameras and other recording devices. While police departments in some large jurisdictions, including Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, say they have made efforts to keep their department policies in sync with technology trends, the majority may not be up to date, the legal director of the District’s ACLU said.
“Most police departments probably haven’t carefully thought about this issue or written clear policies for the education of their officers and the members of the public,” said Arthur Spitzer, of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital.
The legal director for Virginia’s ACLU said the agency has not seen any “systematic violations” of citizens’ rights to record officers, but added that violations are still regularly reported.
“It’s definitely a persistent problem,” legal director Rebecca Glenberg said, adding the chapter has not had any litigation against a police department on the issue.
While it was not an update to their general orders, Prince George's County police officials sent an alert to all officers in April reminding them to have no expectation of privacy while performing official police duties, department spokeswoman Julie Parker said.
“Provided a citizen is not interfering with police duties, that citizen has the right to record an officer’s actions,” she said.
In Montgomery County, officers receive training in the police academy about the public’s right to record officers, said spokesman Capt. Paul Starks, who teaches some of the session.
“If they are standing on public property, anything they film can be filmed,” Capt. Starks said.
In light of evolving technology, Capt. Starks said the department regularly reviews and modifies its policies and is currently in the midst of a review. Without seeing the District’s general order, he was unsure whether Montgomery County police would adopt anything similar but noted that the District would “have different case law than Maryland,” so what is applicable in one jurisdiction wouldn’t necessarily work in another.
Ms. Curtis noted that the District’s order appears to be largely based on a Department of Justice ruling issued earlier this year to guide the Baltimore Police Department in revising its general order on the video recording of police activity.
Maryland’s ACLU remains in litigation with Baltimore police for a 2010 incident during which officers erased videos from a man’s cellphone after he used it to record the arrest of a friend at Pimlico Race Course.
Baltimore’s revisions were made after the 2010 incident, but were not “sufficient” to protect individual’s constitutional rights, Ms. Curtis said.
“We would want to work with any police department that wants to take this on,” Ms. Curtis said. “It’s a protective move they can make to both protect the department and civil rights.”
The District’s new general order is not without criticism.
The union chairman representing the department’s officers called it “overkill,” stating that officers have thousands of interactions with residents each day that are without incident.
“The only concerns I’ve seen from officers is in case people get too close or if people try to take pictures of people’s personal information on an officer’s computer,” Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the District’s Fraternal Order of Police. “I think we’ve done a very good job for the last decade to respect people’s rights to take pictures.”
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Andrea Noble is a crime and public safety reporter for The Washington Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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