Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested Wednesday night while covering the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following Saturday's police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. While eventually released, Lowery was detained for not packing up his bag fast enough while being forced out of the McDonald's he was reporting from -- and told by an officer to stop recording video of the encounter on his smartphone.
But Washington Post editor Marty Baron noted in his statement responding to the incident that the order to stop filming was illegal. Courts have held that, as a general rule, individuals have a right to record law enforcement officers carrying out their duties in public spaces. And as the video archive of questionable police tactics from citizen observers grows, it's clear there's a certain benefit to keeping a digital eye on the police: Knowing there is a record of their actions can help put everyone on their best behavior -- or at least make sure there's evidence of misbehavior when it occurs.
Many police stations have long recorded at least some of their officers' interactions with the public, most frequently through dashboard cameras that capture traffic stops. Indeed, elsewhere in the world -- such as Russia -- car owners often purchase their own dashcams to gather evidence for insurance purposes and to record their interactions with the police and others.
But there's also a growing movement in the United States to have on-duty officers use body cameras to record their interactions with the public. Police officers in Rialto, Calif., started wearing cameras in February 2012. The result? The volume of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous year, and use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent, according to the New York Times. The tactic adds an extra layer of accountability on police actions and creates a record that officers can fall back on if their account differs from that of an arrestee.
Other jurisdictions have also started using cameras on officers. Police in Laurel, Md., started using them last summer. Not long after that, a federal judge ordered police officers in some New York precincts to use bodycams to monitor how they were enforcing the city's controversial stop-and-frisk program -- something then-mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed, even though he was generally in favor of increased surveillance elsewhere.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which typically raises the alarm over practices that potentially infringe on privacy, has endorsed the idea. "Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers," the group argued in a position paper released last fall.
Still, the civil liberties group did note the policy questions raised by the technology's use. Control over the actual device and its recordings is important, the ACLU argues. "If the cameras do not record continuously, that would place them under officer control, which would create the danger that they could be manipulated by some officers, undermining their core purpose of detecting police misconduct," the group says.
The ACLU also suggests that video be deleted after a certain amount of time unless a recording has been flagged -- and that period should be weeks, not years. There are other concerns, too, such as how to handle the recordings when officers enter a private residence.
As technology progresses, other new privacy concerns will no doubt be raised, such as the potential for facial recognition technology to be run against police bodycam footage to create a record of an individual's movements. But so far it seems like keeping a digital eye on the police can be a powerful tool for checking the power imbalance between citizens and the law enforcement agents who interact with them.
In the case of the Michael Brown shooting, much of the information we have comes from eyewitness accounts. If the police had an unedited video of the encounter, there would be little doubt about what exactly occurred, and perhaps accountability would be easier to achieve.