The Law Can’t Stop You From Photographing The Law
Let me start by saying this: there was a #blacklivesmatter rally in my Canadian city recently, and the police were pleasantly peaceful (as was the protest.)
Although there was a lot of passion and a lot of anger being released in the public space (and rightly so), the local police seemed calm and stayed on the sidelines or parked from a safe distance. For the most part, they were part of the scenery.
But we know from seeing a lot of photos and videos lately (and throughout history) that police don’t always behave as they should around protestors. We’re currently seeing scenes of police atrocities that fly in the face of civil rights and common decency. And we’re seeing them because photographers and videographers are right in the middle of the action, risking harm (and being harmed), helping to make sure these officers end up on the wrong side of history.
So as I’m seeing more images of wrongdoing and injustices (not to mention the letter shared by the U.S. president referring to protestors as “terrorists”), I started to worry that the next move would be for the police to start banning media from protest zones. And then someone posted about Cleveland doing just that, and it raised my anxieties a bit more and compelled me to write this piece.
The Law Protects Your Right To Document
While the laws for photography might differ a bit from the U.S. and Canada, the basic premise is the same: if you can see it, you can snap it. While there are some exceptions, police are not exempt from being filmed and photographed while on duty, whether you’re an accredited member of the media or not.
Yet, there are cases when police are using intimidation towards people documenting events (even arresting a reporter on-air for no apparent reason except for the one you’re thinking), and at other times demanding to see photos and video without warrant (literally.) You do not have to hand over your camera/phone to an officer — you just have to make sure you’re not getting in their way when they’re working.
*Here’s something I just thought of as I was sipping my coffee this morning thinking about what’s happening in the world. If you’ve captured an image/clip you fear the authorities might try to confiscate, try this: email a copy of the photo to yourself from your device, or send it to your own cloud storage. That way, if for any reason you’re intimidated into deleting the images/footage or handing over your gear, you’ll already have a copy.
While police in my city don’t seem to take issue with being photographed (some have even posed for me), I also haven’t captured any of them doing something abjectly wrong. I don’t know for sure what would happen to me if an officer saw me photographing them handing out tickets to the homeless, for example.
Body Cams Are Not Enough
The police in my city, however, does seem to have a problem with wearing body cams (I just found a petition to change this), as do other forces across North America. The local police board cites costs, but of course, a body cam is aimed at raising accountability. But consider that even when body cams are worn (or dash cams are used), the footage is in the hands of the police — it’s not magically beamed to some public beacon that can be viewed by anyone. So there’s no way for sure to ensure full accountability, and in some cases, police have conveniently said their cams weren’t working properly.
This is why the public should keep taking photos and video of police and law enforcement in action. I know it might be daunting, but any interaction you photograph may become an important piece of evidence that contradicts a police report down the road.
I have never experienced the kind of police behavior I’m seeing online right now between officers and protestors/reporters. I’ve never been in the midst of a clash between authorities and the public that put me in immediate danger. I might sing a different tune if I was, but I’d like to think my instincts would be to snap away and not back down.
Why? Because a single photo could change an outcome. And it can become part of the fabric of history that future generations will hopefully reflect on.