Police caught on video engaging in unethical if not criminal behavior has made even good officers leery of becoming the subject of a candid camera moment. That’s fine until their shyness rubs up against the First Amendment, in which case the Constitution must prevail.
Two recent court decisions on each side of the Delaware River affirmed that standard, which protects citizens’ right to know without preventing any police officer from doing his job.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that video and other police records must be made available to the public in certain cases. The ruling concerned dashboard camera footage and other records in the 2014 death of Kashad Ashford, 23, who was shot by police while driving a stolen SUV. A grand jury ruled the shooting justified.
The Record and the weekly South Bergenite newspapers sought audio and video recordings of the incident, but were denied by police under an exemption in New Jersey’s open records law concerning police investigatory records. The newspapers sued and a Superior Court ordered the records released, but an appeals panel reinstated the exemption.
The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that the public can’t be denied records just because the police say the information is related to an ongoing investigation. The police or any other public agency must provide specific reasons why releasing the records would be harmful to the public interest, and not generic reasons that would apply to all cases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled Philadelphia police were wrong to restrain two people photographing officers. Richard Fields, a Temple University student, was handcuffed to keep him from photographing police trying to break up a party in 2013. Amanda Geraci, a member of the Up Against the Law group, said she was “attacked” by officers when she tried to video-record them arresting an anti-fracking demonstrator in 2012.
A civil rights suit filed for Geraci and Fields by the ACLU of Pennsylvania was rejected by a lower court judge, who said for the First Amendment to apply a person must announce to the police that they are being recorded prior to taking pictures. Not so, said the appeals court, pointing out that the value of recording police activity might not be immediately obvious to a person until he starts recording it.
Former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey told officers three years ago they “should reasonably anticipate and expect to be photographed, videotaped, and/or audibly recorded by members of the general public.” With cameras just about everywhere today, that is good advice for police and citizens alike. Acting as if we are always under scrutiny may improve our public behavior and keep us out of trouble.