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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Video-Taping Policing

A recent snitching-related phenomenon has seen citizens secretly recording police activity. Different types of recording devices have been used, from the omnipresent mobile phone, to cameras mounted in cars or, in a recent case filed in Maryland, a motorcycle helmet. The police, however, are fighting back: in Maryland, an officer caught on a tape posted on YouTube sued the arrestee under a wiretap statute for recording the encounter that led to the arrest.

While the judge ultimately threw out the case, the Maryland police are not alone in arresting individuals who record or watch them do their job. In fact, the subtext of a recent Supreme Court case, Devenpeck vs. Alford, 543 U.S. 146 (2004) concerned a police officer who (wrongfully) arrested a suspect for tape recording the arrest.

Citizens taping cops can fit the definition of snitching, if the citizen plans to use the tape to gain lenience or drop the charge. It also fits one scenario in which subjects have proved more willing to inform on lawbreakers: when the wrongdoer is a police officer.

Why do the police react so negatively to citizen video-taping? After all, the police themselves use dashboard-mounted cameras in police cars that capture traffic stops. In part, the police do so because they believe having an accurate record of the stop will most often support the officer's version of events and undermine some of the negative attitudes towards the police.

One reason might be that citizen-sponsored videotaping (as opposed to police-sponsored taping) is a direct challenge to police control and authority. Since much of the stop-snitching phenomenon is a reaction to community perceptions of antagonistic policing or forcible policing that distances the police from the community and uses criminal informants to target low level crimes, citizen videotaping is a means of redressing the balance, by creating a record of what the police, in fact, do.

Police overreaction to citizen videotaping is best understood as a demand for a display of respect for and deference to the police. It highlights the distinction between consensual policing, of the sort that treats citizens with respect as equals, and the sort of adversarial posture that relies on criminal informants to the detriment of communication and community relations.