D.C. officers are directed to leave citizen photographers alone

July 23, 2012

District police cannot interfere with citizens as they photograph or videotape officers performing their jobs in public, according to a new directive issued by Chief Cathy L. Lanier as part of settlement in a civil lawsuit.

The six-page general order, similar to one published by police in Baltimore in November, warns officers that “a bystander has the right under the First Amendment to observe and record members in the public discharge of their duties.”

On Monday, the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union dropped a federal lawsuit filed against D.C. police by Jerome Vorus, a freelance photojournalist who was detained while shooting a traffic stop in Georgetown in June 2010.

Arthur B. Spitzer, the ACLU chapter’s legal director, said Vorus obtained an undisclosed monetary settlement and agreed to the new general order, which was published June 19.

“It tells police to leave people alone,” Spitzer said. “It makes it clear that if a person is in a place that interferes with police operations, the officer can ask or tell them to move to another location, but they can’t tell them to stop taking pictures.”

Gwendolyn Crump, chief spokeswoman for D.C. police, said the new policy is in addition to existing rules governing how officers interact with the news media. “The new general order reaffirms the Metropolitan Police Department’s recognition of the First Amendment rights enjoyed by not only members of the media but the general public as well,” Crump said in a statement.

The issue of police officers seizing cameras and ordering people to stop taking pictures has been a source of conflict for years, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The new policies recognize that cameras are ubiquitous, and that anyone carrying a cellphone is also most likely equipped with a camera.

In 2010, a Maryland judge threw out criminal charges filed under the wiretapping statute against a motorcyclist who recorded his own traffic stop with a helmet-mounted camera and posted it on YouTube.

That same year, Baltimore police seized a cellphone that recorded a disorderly-conduct arrest at the Pimlico Race Course during the Preakness Stakes.

The general order in D.C. makes it clear that citizens with cameras are not permitted to cross police lines, stand in areas not already accessible by the public and cannot interfere with officers doing their jobs.

But it also emphasizes that taking pictures “by itself does not constitute suspicious conduct.” Lanier’s order says that images cannot be deleted “under any circumstances.”

If an officer thinks a citizen has captured images that could be used as evidence, police can ask the person to e-mail such images to the department. If the person refuses, the officer can call a supervisor and seek a warrant to seize the camera or images.

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