If You See a Cop Stop, Start Recording

Sadly, that's what it's come to. Here's everything citizens need to know about recording police activity.

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager caught on video shooting Walter Scott in the back.

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager caught on video shooting Walter Scott in the back.

For the past week, the country has spent a lot of time — perhaps too much? — watching North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager fire his gun repeatedly into the back of a fleeing Walter Scott, who died. Slager was denied bail and is currently sitting in jail awaiting trial for murder. But would that be the case if not for the bystander who caught the tragic shooting on video? I think not.

It seems like not a week goes by without a bystander police video going viral and winding up on the national evening news. Sometimes, though, these videos aren’t particularly useful. Remember the video of the white cop who pointed his gun at black teens, just because they were having a snowball fight? Yeah, that tale was debunked, but not before millions of people heard about it. Too frequently, these videos start after pivotal events occurred, or there are things going on outside the frame that we can’t see.

But in the case of the Walter Scott shooting, the video is as damning as damning can be, so much so that the man who shot it considered deleting it, fearing for his life. When Philadelphia-based writer and human rights activist David Love analyzed the video, writing on CNN.com that Scott was “shot like a runaway slave,” I couldn’t disagree.

Without the Walter Scott video and other videos like it, these stories would likely never get out. They would be swept under the rug, covered up by the proverbial thin blue line. And so citizens everywhere need to arm themselves with cameras and start recording. Maybe the videos will be incomplete — they probably will be — but the Walter Scott video, which certainly doesn’t capture the entire encounter between cop and citizen, has shown us that it’s better to have an incomplete video than no video at all.

And in Philadelphia, citizens have even more of a reason to pull out their phones. The Department of Justice recently released a 174-page report about deadly force incidents involving the Philadelphia police, and it showed that Philadelphia police may be particularly trigger happy, having shot and killed people six times more often than their counterparts in New York. The report also concluded that deadly force disproportionately affects black people in Philadelphia, that officer-involved shootings are inconsistently investigated, and that our cops need to be trained better in deescalation techniques.

Well, while the police straighten all of that out — and knowing how things operate in Philadelphia, it isn’t going to be straightened out anytime soon — we say start recording. Below, some pointers.

Is it legal to record police on video in Philadelphia?
Yes, absolutely. If you are in a public place where you encounter police officers performing their official duties, you have the right to record, whether it’s a traffic stop, a cop arresting or questioning someone on the street, or police activity at a protest. On private property, it’s a murkier matter. If you’re on private property and you’re instructed by the owner (or an agent of the owner) of that property to stop recording, you should listen to what they say.

Don’t interfere with police activity.
As long as you don’t interfere with the cops doing their job, you should be on legally solid ground if you want to record. Of course, the word “interfere” can be interpreted in many different ways, and suffice it to say, your definition probably won’t jibe with the cops’ in a tense situation. Stay to the sidelines and don’t try to antagonize the cops with words. Get in a police officer’s face with your camera lens, and you may wind up in the back of a squad car, right or wrong.

Be nice.
When approached by a police officer who tells you to stop recording, the correct response is not, “Fuck you, pig.” The correct response is something to the effect of, “Officer, I believe that I am within my rights to record this police activity.” Always be polite.

Police cannot take or search your phone.
Don’t forget, there’s something called the Constitution, and it protects you from illegal search and seizure. The police do not have the right to take your phone. But, suggests the local office of the ACLU, if they try to take it, don’t resist. Let them have the phone, but make sure you tell them that you don’t consent. And if they tell you that they want to look at your videos or otherwise search your phone, ask them if they have a warrant. The United States Supreme Court ruled last year that police cannot search your phone without one.

Upload your video automatically.
Of course, if police do confiscate your phone and delete the video, then all of this was for nothing. Fortunately, technology offers us a solution. There are apps out there like FiVo Film (get it? 5-0? wink wink …) that will automatically save your video somewhere on the Internet other than your phone, so if the man makes off with your iPhone or squashes it under his boot, all is not lost. There is also the live-streaming app Periscope, which lets you save a stream for 24 hours.

Don’t get arrested yourself.
If you’re nice and you don’t interfere with what the cops are doing, you should be OK. But if you encounter an officer who has had a really bad day, you could be in trouble. If things escalate to the point where you really just want to go home, ask the police, “Am I free to go?” This is a simple yes or no question that indicates to the cops that you are no legally oblivious chump. If the answer is yes, then you are not being detained and can simply walk away. If the answer is no, then you are officially being detained and, says the ACLU, the police are going to have to show that they had “reasonable suspicion that you have [committed] or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so.” Chances are, the police are going to realize that you are about to be a huge legal pain in their ass requiring lots of paperwork, and they’ll send you and your video on your way.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.

Previously: ACLU Sues Police for Using Force to Stop Photos of Arrest

Previously: Let’s Start Videotaping Every Encounter With Philly Police