Police officers push limits of videotaping

By Freedom Newspapers

Give police agencies an inch, and they’ll take a mile. That’s the gist of a court decision reining in the New York City Police Department, which has increasingly stretched the legal limits placed on its ability to videotape peaceful demonstrators and passersby at political events.

The U.S. District Court decision, although applying to New York, has broader significance given the tendency of police agencies nationwide to push for more video surveillance of the public as a supposed means to “protect” us from terrorism and crime.

Last week, Judge Charles Haight Jr. ordered the department to stop the widespread and unwarranted video practices. As the New York Times explained, the city in 1985 settled a case with Vietnam-era demonstrators that put strict limits on the police department’s video use. Four years ago, Judge Haight himself authored an opinion that loosened up those restrictions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Under the revised rules, the NYPD was allowed to videotape people at demonstrations, but only under certain circumstances — i.e., only when officials had reason to believe illegal behavior would take place and only after they get written permission from the department’s intelligence division.

Police could use videotaping when law-breaking is suspected, but they could not wantonly tape the public, as that would put a chilling effect on free speech and political behavior. As the 2003 order explained, “It is the policy of the New York City Police Department that investigations involving political activity conform to the guarantees of the Constitution, that care be exercised in the conduct of those investigations so as to protect constitutional rights, and that matters investigated be confined to those supported by a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

But reasonable compromises don’t often work with government agencies, which constantly push the envelope — or, in this case, the Constitution — to expand their power.

In his decision last week, Judge Haight ruled the NYPD simply had ignored any restrictions on its newfound power to videotape. “There is no discernible justification for the apparent disregard of the guidelines,” the judge said. He referred to one egregious example, when a group of homeless advocates peacefully marched through the city: “Here, on an early December Sunday, having previously obtained NYPD permission, are a group of about 50 people carrying signs, chanting and walking in a picket line before the mayor’s residence on 79th Street, trying to enlist the mayor’s aid in relaxing state government control over city rent laws. This is a quintessential ‘political activity’ … . And there are police officers, videotaping the marchers, holding their cameras just a few feet from them and aiming them at the marchers’ faces and the signs they carried.”

In another instance, the judge pointed to a mass bike ride to protest environmental policy. The judge said it would have been appropriate for NYPD to videotape the ride because of the expectation of widespread violation of the city’s traffic laws, but the department failed to get the required permission before doing so.

Police defenders argued that because any member of the public was free to videotape the event, NYPD should be free to do so also. But the judge wisely noted the enormous difference between an individual taping events and police officials doing so, given the power they have to arrest and monitor those events’ participants.

The NYPD “has generally had the public on its side when it comes to securing the city since the Sept. 11 attacks,” opined the New York Times in an editorial. “But the police have more and more overstepped their bounds.” Those words apply not just to New York, but nationwide. Perhaps Judge Haight’s opinion will help push the matter back in a more balanced direction.