Let’s Talk about Filming the Police

Captain Craig Schwartz of the Santa Rosa Police Department
Captain Craig Schwartz of the Santa Rosa Police Department

Captain Craig Schwartz of the Santa Rosa (California) Police Department writes about police matters in his Facebook Santa Rosa Police page. He has given permission to re-post his article. For the direct feed, go to Santa Rosa Police Department’s Facebook page 

Captain’s Blog: Let’s talk about filming the police.

Hello again,

Before I get into the topic of this post, I’d like to ask for your input. We want to continue these blog-like posts, with information about the Department, our work, and policing related topics of interest, but I need a good title for them. I’m calling my posts the Captain’s Blog for now, but if you have suggestions for a different title, send them in via the comments. Keep it clean please!

Now, on to our topic of the day. My recent post about the incidents in our Downtown on Monday morning brings up a chance for a conversation about a topic that sometimes bring the police into conflict with people in the community: filming or recording the police.

We see news stories all too frequently across the country which show officers ordering people to turn off their cameras, seizing cameras, or even arresting people who are recording us as we go about our duties. There were a number of people filming one of the events I described from Monday morning, and we regularly tell our officers to expect that they are being recorded every time they are in public doing their job.

The fact is that it is perfectly legal to film the police while they are performing their duties in a public place, as long as the recording is not surreptitious. The law does say that people cannot record a confidential communication without the consent of all the parties involved in that communication, but taking photos or video of the police working in public is a 1st Amendment right.

If a photo or video recording may constitute evidence, the police may ask your consent to view or copy the photo or video, but we generally do not have the authority to seize your property without a warrant signed by a judge.

We actually welcome people to film us. If we are doing our jobs right, the recordings will help us by showing that. If we act improperly or make mistakes, we need to see that so that we can be accountable and improve our performance. People should remember however, that the right to film or record the police does not allow them to interfere with officers in the performance of their duties. If someone gets too close or otherwise begins to interfere with the officers, they may be subject to arrest whether or not they are trying to exercise their right to record. Please stay far enough back so that we don’t have to divert our attention away from the tasks at hand. We may have legitimate safety concerns if bystanders get too close or try to insert themselves into an incident in the interest of getting a “close-up”. If we are at a crime scene, we may also need to keep people out of that scene to preserve evidence and continue our investigation.

Also, officers have the need to safely control people who are being arrested or detained and may have legal and safety justification to prevent those people from accessing their smart phones or other property during a detention.

Finally, I think it is important to remember that any recording, whether from a bystander the officer, or a patrol car dash camera, shows only a part of any incident. The camera does not necessarily present a situation as experienced by any of the participants, and we all view events or videos through our own lenses based on the facts we have at the time and our own biases. It is important to view a recording as an important piece of any investigation, but we can’t always judge an incident based solely on that video or audio recording.

Just a few thoughts. Thanks for reading,

Captain Craig Schwartz

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