D.C. chief allows citizens to record and photograph police

Washington D.C.'s police chief issues an order that "recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record" the police.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
3 min read
Cell phone cameras can be used to record police activity in Washington D.C. if it doesn't interfere with police activity. Josh Miller/CNET

Cell phone videos and photos have increasingly brought law enforcement activities to the public eye, such as the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., and crowd control tactics during the Occupy Wall Street protests. But this has also meant that police are more wary of camera-toting citizens.

However, Washington D.C.'s police chief, Cathy Lanier, recently announced that cops are going to have to learn to live with people recording and snapping photos of them, according to DCist. In a six-page General Order, Lanier outlines specific do's and don'ts that her staff must adhere to when dealing with people recording in public.

"The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity," Lanier wrote.

This General Order comes after a settlement in the case of Jerome Vorus who was told by police to stop photographing a traffic stop in Georgetown two years ago, according to Ars Technica. In other instances, some cops have been found arresting people for video recording in public and taking people's cell phones to delete the photos and recordings.

Lanier's order has several instructions for police when dealing with citizens recording video or taking photos, including allowing individuals to make recordings in public or private places they have a right to be, not interfering with the recording, no seizing of cameras or video equipment if there's no evidence of a crime recorded, obtaining a search warrant before accessing information on a seized device, and no erasing of recorded images, videos, or sounds.

Here's more of what the General Order says:

As long as the photographing or recording takes place in a setting at which the individual has a legal right to be present and does not interfere with a member's safety, members shall not inform or instruct people that photographing or recording of police officers, police activity or individuals who are the subject of police action (such as a Terry stop or an arrest) is not allowed; requires a permit; or requires the member's consent. Additionally, members shall not:

  • Order that person to cease such activity;
  • Demand that person's identification;
  • Demand that the person state a reason why he or she is taking photographs or recording;
  • Detain that person;
  • Intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices; or
  • In any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording members' enforcement activities.

Several courts have affirmed the right of citizens to record police actions recently. A federal appeals court ordered the city of Boston to pay $170,000 to a man prosecuted under criminal wiretap laws for using his cell phone to record an arrest in a landmark case from last summer. Another appeals court struck down an Illinois law in May 2012 that had made it illegal for citizens to record police officers while on duty. And earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice affirmed the constitutional rights of citizens to record the police in public. Lanier's General Order seems to be one more step in this direction.