question of the day: Is there still an as yet untapped potential for ubiquitous cameras to give power back to the public?

Wendy McElroy at Gizmodo recently posted a provocative essay entitled “Are Cameras the New Guns?” looking at the new pushback from local municipalities in the U.S. regarding civilians photographing apparent police abuse. McElroy writes:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

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.

Police harrassing tourists photographing some structures and places in London as an antiterrorism aid has been an ongoing issue in the U.K. for several years.

You’ve probably, heard, too about the Seattle cop who was caught on camera this week punching a teenaged girl after she resisted arrest for jaywalking. Interestingly, Carlos Miller, who documents the criminalization of citizens with cameras who watchdog cops at Photography Is Not a Crime, believes the cop’s punch was justified, which throws another angle on the larger issue: sometimes a cop’s work, even when totally within the bounds of legality and ethics, isn’t pretty.

There didn’t seem to be anything new to this current tussle between ubiquitous cameras in the hands of citizens keeping the powerful in check until I read an essay by David Hinckley in the New York Daily News this morning commenting on BP CEO Tony Hayward’s grilling before Congress yesterday. Hinckley writes:

A television picture was worth way more than a thousand words yesterday at the BP oil spill hearings.

Nothing spoken by witnesses, inquisitors or commentators in the day-long marathon came close to the impact of the silent Spill-Cam. It showed thousands of barrels of crude pouring into the Gulf, even as congressional representatives and the chairman of BP sparred over who’s responsible.

Those pictures also gave a voice to the party that often feels unrepresented in these major TV events: the viewer, the civilian, the proverbial average person who cares way less about the nuances of corporate culture at BP than about just stuffing a cork in that pipe.

Juxtaposing BP chief Tony Hayward with the Spill-Cam, whether it was intended as journalistic commentary or just a way to get some visual variety onto the screen, very effectively made the point that even by the normal standards of congressional hearings, yesterday’s talk was especially cheap.

Now, this isn’t quite the same as cameras-on-cops, because the “Spill-Cam” isn’t wielded by a random citizen passerby, but the impact is similar… particularly when BP appears to have been trying to keep journalistic photographers away from areas affecting by the spill. (If we want to be really paranoid, we could wonder whether the Spill-Cam, which belongs to BP, is actually giving us accurate images.)

Photography (and later film and videography) has been impacting public opinion since Mathew Brady’s images of Civil War battlefields in the 1860s. Today, however, there are more and more cameras everywhere, not just surveillance cameras but those carried around by ordinary people in cell phones. Is there still an as yet untapped potential for ubiquitous cameras to give power back to the public? Will even more cameras (as more people trade in their dumb phones for smart phones, for instance) continue to change this dynamic? Will the Spill-Cam be what ultimately sinks BP? Or have we already ready the saturation point as are as the omnipresence of cameras?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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Fri, Jun 18, 2010 10:11am

Police themselves seem to have no trouble with the idea of putting cameras on the citizenry at all times, and now that the citizens have cameras themselves, they find themselves feeling a little shy? What a pity.

The writer’s equation of cameras with guns is dead-on. Now that the law enforcmeent community and well-intentioned but naive elected officials have successfully taken firearms away from many law-abiding citizens, our best recourse against abuse of power by the state is information. It’s sadly no surprise that they want to take that away.

Thanks for getting this information out. It’s important that people know about this.

C David Dent
Fri, Jun 18, 2010 10:37am

As a Maryland resident the law is pretty clear about “expectations of privacy”. In a public place you have no expectation of privacy. That includes the side of a public road.

State courts have interpreted the laws to protect communications only when the parties have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This includes instances where the proceedings will affect a court appearance, such as an arrest. In other words, if a cop is arresting you, you have a right to record it.

Other people may not, however, have a right to record the arrest and this is where the law and practice are hitting a wall. The police contend that people recording them in the performance of their duty puts them at risk of retaliation. I contend that NOT recording them in the performance of their duty puts us at risk of abuse.

There have been several instances this year alone of incidents of police abuses in Maryland that bear out this contention.

Frankly, the “two party consent rule” is just another way that the government is covering their own ass.

Fri, Jun 18, 2010 11:00am

Yes, cameras give power to the public, and yes, that is a very good thing. More information is always better. These laws preventing people from videotaping police are flagrantly authoritarian.

Fri, Jun 18, 2010 11:26am

Too many cameras take away our rights though. What have you got to hide is what they asked during the Salem witch trials.

Just think, if you were the person who filmed Rodney King getting his ass kicked, you could be arrested for it.

I don’t know the ins and outs of the cop punching that girl. From what I hear, she was belligerent and arrogant towards him but I think when he hit her, there an element of him losing control of himself and the situation. I used to have a friend who was a cop – and well anyway – cops are trained to slap handcuffs on people pretty quickly and I can’t help thinking that restraining her might have been a wiser way to go. He risked inflaming the situation, especially if there was a group of people gathering. Bad judgement on his part.

Fri, Jun 18, 2010 11:49am

Laws preventing police from being videotaped might as well just say outright “we just don’t want their brutality publicized”. More cameras in the hands of the average person to catch this kind of crap is a good thing.

Yeah, that punch was out of line. Nothing she had done up to that point justified his response. Cops are trained to keep situations calm, not to escalate them. And the ridiculous part is that this was all about a jaywalking offense, which is hardly so serious as to have even warranted the officer’s attention in the first place. It’s no surprise she responded the way she did over something so minor. I’ve seen people jaywalk in full view of police cars and had nothing happen.

Fri, Jun 18, 2010 2:53pm

From what I read, the area she was jaywalking in, is an accident black spot, which is why the cop was there warning people. Do you get fined for that in the States? Was he trying to giver her a friendly warning or punish her?

One of the laws of physics is that you change something by observing it. I’m not going to watch the footage but I have to wonder if the cop felt under pressure when someone started filming him. He may have felt that he needed to assert himself quickly. Cops are crazy, though. Anyone remember that footage of the cop who pulled a gun on someone who threw a snowball at him? Power corrupts!