The whole world is watching

Camera phones put law enforcement under surveillance


     Niche Web sites have sprung up that offer collections of user-generated videos related to encounters with law enforcement. One such site is CopWatchLA.org, which promotes itself as a citizens' watchdog organization and functions as a clearinghouse for what it calls "police terrorism" videos. At this site and others, including YouTube, video viewers may leave comments for the next viewers to read. This creates a situation in which, rather than watching these videos in a vacuum free of influence, people who watch a video often read negative comments about it before and after viewing; they find themselves in an echo chamber, where their perceptions could be shaped and then reinforced by the comments of other viewers.

     Law enforcement professionals say that, whatever their feelings about being videotaped while they work, most officers are fully aware of the ramifications of how the Internet can be used to generate unfair judgment and publicity — and that fears about how they will be portrayed in videotape could, conceivably, affect their on-the-job decision-making. "The net effect becomes that officers see this stuff just like everybody else does, and they see the public questioning the field of law enforcement," says Weinblatt. "I do think officers are starting to second-guess themselves and think about what they should do."

     Wills goes further, voicing the concern many in law enforcement have about the possible interference of camera phones. "We're already behind the power curve in terms of the action-versus-reaction concept that we deal with," he says, "and [videotaping] might put us even further behind because now, if I'm an officer, I'm worried about somebody tape recording me or filming me. That might cause just that little bit of hesitation that's going to cause a cop to get hurt or killed."

The camera phone rules

     For all the concern about camera phones and anti-police videos, though, virtually all law enforcement professionals say they're here to stay and that the positives of the public's ability to record police officers on the job still outweigh the negatives. "I think, on balance, that it's a positive that there is this kind of capacity," says Boyd. "I think obviously there are contexts in which taping isn't appropriate because it amounts to an invasion of privacy or it interferes with a legitimate law enforcement activity."

     Wills notes that, while police officers do a public job in the public sphere and have little right to any expectation of privacy, many people will stop recording police officers if asked. "They know it has its limits," he says, "that fact that you can go out there and think that you can just, you know, film anything." Further, if the recording is capturing a criminal matter, Wills notes, officers might seize the camera to review it for evidentiary material.

     Boyd and others say that one basic of police work offers the most insurance against an exaggerated or misconstrued video — officers who make sure they are both familiar with their department's policies and complying with those policies, experts say, will be able to avoid many potential problems, including those that could show up on a video.

     In fact, says Ruffin, the widespread practice of videotaping law enforcement activities may ultimately contribute to a greater public understanding of police work. Even the videos that receive negative publicity, he says, "are a chance to make the public more aware of what police officers face every single day." He advises departments to go on the offensive and make sure their side of the story gets distributed via the same medium that the camera-phone videographers use. "YouTube can work for law enforcement as well," Ruffin says. "If you've got a story to tell, by all means record a clip and load it up to YouTube."

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