Lights, Camera, Arrested: Americans Are Being Thrown in Jail for Filming Police

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Once again, the U.S. government is attempting to police the world when it should be policing its own law enforcement agencies. We’ve got a warship cruising the Black Sea, fighter jets patrolling the Baltic skies, and a guided-missile destroyer searching the South China Sea for the downed Malaysia Airlines flight. All the while, back home in the U.S., our constitutional rights are going to hell in a hand basket, with homeowners being threatened with eviction for attempting to live off the grid, old women jailed for feeding crows, and citizens armed with little more than a cell phone arrested for daring to record police activities.

Robin Speronis now finds herself threatened with eviction from her own Florida home for daring to live off the grid, independent of city utilities such as water and electricity. City officials insist the Cape Coral resident’s chosen way of life violates international property maintenance code and city ordinances. Mary Musselman, also a Florida resident, is being held in jail without bond for “feeding wild animals.” The 81-year-old Musselman, on probation after being charged with feeding bears near her home, was arrested after officers discovered her leaving bread out for crows. Meanwhile, Brandy Berning of Florida was forced to spend a night in jail after recording her conversation with an officer who pulled her over for a routine traffic stop.

Welcome to the farce that passes for law and order in America today, where, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, crime is low, militarized police activity is on the rise, and Americans are being penalized for living off the grid, feeding wild animals, holding Bible studies in their back yard, growing vegetables in their front yard, collecting rainwater, and filming the police.

This latter point should really stick in your craw. Consider the irony: the government insists it can carry out all manner of surveillance on us—listen in on our phone calls, read our emails and text messages, track our movements, photograph our license plates, even enter our biometric information into DNA databases—but if we dare to return the favor, even a little, we get roughed up by the police, arrested, charged with violating various and sundry crimes, and forced to make restitution.

For example, George Thompson of Boston was arrested after he used his cell phone to record a police officer he describes as being “out of control.” University of Texas college student Abie Kyle Ikhinmwi was arrested after recording a police speed trap with her cell phone. Kansas teen Addison Mikkelson was arrested after filming a patrol car allegedly speeding and failing to use a turn signal.

And then there is the Baltimore man who was threatened by police after they discovered him filming them during an arrest. The ensuing confrontation, which went something like this:

“I’m allowed to do this,” the man told the officer.

“Get it out of my face,” the officer replied.

“I have my rights,” the man said.

“You have no rights,” the officer said.

“I thought I had freedom of speech here,” the man said.

“You don’t. You just lost it,” the officer replied.

And that, in a nutshell, is what happens when law enforcement officials—not just the police, but every agent of the government entrusted with enforcing laws, from the president on down—are allowed to discard the law when convenient. At the point where there’s a double standard at play, where the only ones having to obey the law are the citizenry and not the enforcers, then that vital “social contract” that John Locke envisioned as the basis for society breaks down. The more we allow government officials to operate outside the law, the more we ensure that the law becomes only a tool to punish us, rather than binding and controlling the government, as it was intended.

This brings me back to the problem of Americans getting arrested for filming the police. Until recently, this has primarily been a problem experienced by journalists and photographers attempting to document political protests and other disturbances involving the police. However, with the preponderance of smart phones capable of recording audio and video, individuals who dare to record police engaged in questionable or abusive activities in public are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of the harsh treatment they intended to document. These videos, if widely distributed, can be a powerful method of subjecting police to closer scrutiny and holding them accountable to respecting the rights of those they are supposed to serve. Naturally, police agencies and unions have sought out legal prohibitions on such videos from being created.

The difficulty we face is that police officers are becoming increasingly thin skinned, less restrained in dealing with the public, and more inclined to conceive every word, gesture, or motion as a threat. In an ideal world, police would recognize that, as public servants, they are rightfully subject to recording and surveillance when carrying out their public duties. Unfortunately, this is far from an ideal world.

So what are we to do?

We must continue to stand up for our rights, record police when the opportunity presents itself, and politely remind any offended officers that they are, in fact, our public servants and, as such, their behavior is subject to public scrutiny. If they disagree and attempt to stop us from recording, we can refer them to the U.S. Constitution, which they have sworn to uphold, which protects our right to record matters of public interest. And if they continue to insist on hauling people to jail because they don’t like the idea of transparency and accountability, they can take it up with the courts. The goal is to eventually arrive at a point where we can keep a watchful eye on our government officials, instead of the other way around. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis once observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

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