Few inventions in the past thirty years have had a greater impact on law enforcement than the video camera. The realities of police violence can be hidden easily behind corroborated reports of police officers, until of course, events are captured on video. The March 3, 1991 video taken of a group of Los Angeles police officers beating an unarmed African-American male was one of the first instances where evidence of police misconduct made it into the homes of viewers throughout North America.
Times have changed since Rodney King made the news. Video cameras are ubiquitous. Most people carry one with them everywhere they go in the form of a smartphone. With social media platforms, a video can be streamed live immediately, making it to thousands of viewers within hours, and millions by day’s end. It is not uncommon to find a sea of people, hands outstretched, videotaping reckless behavior by drivers, over-zealous bouncers at bars, and now, more than ever, police officers.
Toronto Police Threaten to Seize Phone of Man Lawfully Filming Arrest
This past week, the Toronto Star published an article on a Toronto man who filmed police officers as they arrested and tasered a man near Ryerson University. According to the article, Mr. Waseem Khan, a letter carrier, was walking with his wife to drop their daughter off at daycare. Mr. Khan said he was prompted to start filming when he saw a suspect on the ground, and a police officer kick him in the head. The officers being videotaped told Mr. Khan that he could not record police and that they would seize his phone for evidence. One officer said that the man they were arresting was going to spit in his face and he was going to get AIDS. The video shows police repeatedly tasering the man on the ground, while he is being restrained. One officer keeps yelling at the man to “stop resisting.”
Toronto Police Spokesperson Mark Pugash indicated that Toronto Police officers have all been told that videotaping without interfering is fine, however, the video of the incident tells a different story. Police stated that the man arrested had spat on and punched a female officer, and that an intervening construction worker was then bitten. Mr. Pugash said that at the time the video was filmed, the man was biting one of the police officers. Mr. Khan expressed skepticism over this, indicating that the man’s body appeared to be limp.
It is important to understand that there are no laws that prevent a person from filming a police officer performing their duties without interfering. This reaction by police, though common, is not legal. Police trying to prevent the public from filming their actions has been sharply rebuked, however, the behavior of the police continues.
York Region Police Appeal Guilty Verdict
Police reacting poorly to being filmed has seen an increase in news coverage recently. Another Toronto Star article reported that two York regional officers found guilty of misconduct, are appealing the decision by the police disciplinary board, stemming from an incident involving a cell phone video.
On September 15, 2013 Constables Shannon Mulville and Mykhaylo Azaryev entered a home in Richmond Hill, responding to a noise complaint. This was their second time returning to this specific residence that night. They found a group of teenagers drinking. A 17-year-old girl told the police they had no right to enter the home, and began to video tape them with her cell phone repeating her message to the other teenagers present. The officers threatened to seize the girl’s cell phone for evidence, indicating that the girl was obstructing the officer’s investigation. The girl was subsequently arrested by police and charged with mischief and obstruct police. Her charges would eventually be dropped.
On November 9, 2015, in a disciplinary hearing, York Regional Constables Mulville and Azaryev were both be found guilty of unlawful or unnecessary arrest contrary to the Police Services Act of Ontario. Mulville was also found guilty discreditable conduct. Important to these proceedings, was another video taken by one of the teenagers, detailing the incident. Constables Mulville and Azaryev are appealing the decision, and while the appeal is ongoing, York Regional Police have indicated they will not comment.
Videotaping is Here to Stay
Both Toronto Police Service and York Regional Police have been clear to the public. It is not illegal to videotape police officers performing their duties. Furthermore, they have also indicated that the behavior of the police officers in both respective incidents was incorrect. Some of the clearest language on the subject can be found in the hearing decision against Mulville and Azaryev. Superintendent Graeme Turl unequivocally indicated that “police officers have no privacy rights in public when executing their duties.” Superintendent Turl continued, noting that stopping a person from taking video or pictures is an infringement of their charter rights; that taking photos or videos does not interfere with the lawful execution of a police officers’ duties; and that a police officer cannot simply take a person’s phone for videotaping them, so long as there is no obstruction.
The inherent value in videotaping police officers to ensure professional conduct and that they are acting within the confines of the law, has been clearly reflected in the recent dialogue over equipping police with body cameras. While concerned citizens filming police may be seen as a cheap alternative to body cameras, saving the taxpayer significant expense, most encounters between police and the population do go undocumented. Body cameras would prove valuable in protecting police as well. Many videos of police encounters, including Mr. Khan’s, often miss the early events which lead to violent situations. The truth would be better served if video evidence came from both sides.
We are clearly moving, for better or worse, toward a future where many video document their daily lives. A clear result has been increased cell phone videos of police, and as a result, police reactions to being videotaped. It is not illegal to videotape police if one is not obstructing them. The general population is aware of this and so is the top brass. It is time that front line officers stop viewing videotaping as a challenge to their authority, but rather as a demand for professionalism, and a very real opportunity to engage the public and build a rapport.
Videotaping a Police Interaction
Do not get in the way of the officers if you decide to film an interaction. There is nothing wrong with filming a public arrest, detention or interaction as an uninvolved third party, if you do not interfere or obstruct the police. Be mindful that the police are doing their job and you should keep a safe distance away.
If officers are behaving professionally then they have nothing to fear from being videotaped.