In Illinois, it is a class one felony, punishable between four to 15 years in prison, to photograph or video record police officers.
(720 ILCS 5/14‑4)
(from Ch. 38, par. 14‑4)
(a) Eavesdropping, for a first offense, is a Class 4 felony and, for a second or subsequent offense, is a Class 3 felony.
(b) The eavesdropping of an oral conversation or an electronic communication between any law enforcement officer, State's Attorney, Assistant State's Attorney, the Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General, or a judge, while in the performance of his or her official duties, if not authorized by this Article or proper court order, is a Class 1 felony.
How can it be that you or I could be sent to prison for 15 years for the same activity that the police, city and local businesses conduct 24/7? The City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications operates over 1,500 surveillance cameras watching our every action like “Big Brother” from Orwell’s 1984, but we can’t record a questionable police stop?
I have already discussed in previous blog posts how many police departments or individual officers actually removed or deactivated their dash cameras from squad cars after they turned out to be helpful to defendants.
Now it seems that police have been targeting journalists as well as private citizens in their efforts to avoid scrutiny for their actions. Here is an article by Ben Kaufman of the Cincinnati City Beat:
“Are increasingly militarized local police — helmets, assault rifles, black uniforms and boots, etc. — using excessive force more often than previous generations?
Or has technology — cell phones and YouTube — made any use of force, whether excessive or justified, easier to document?
A classic example shows Oakland, Calif., police beating an unresisting Occupy demonstrator. Initial images show him facing officers with his hands in his pockets. As he backs away, he is beaten so savagely that his spleen was injured and he required surgery. It’s all online.
Maybe it’s reaching too far, but online images of forceful police confrontations with peaceful students and Occupy Wall Street protesters might do what Al Jazeera satellite images did to spread and support “Arab Spring.” It could give voice to the disorganized protests against growing inequities and their costs in American society today.
Diop Kamau, a former officer, runs the Florida-based Police Complaint Center, which investigates allegations of police abuse nationwide. “Police are now facing an onslaught of scrutiny because everyone has a cellphone,” he told the London Observer. If you don’t believe it, check the Internet for the past week’s photos of cops using pepper spray on Occupy demonstrators across the nation.
To the untrained eye, any use of force can appear excessive, especially if we can’t imagine doing anything that would warrant Mace, pepper spray or physical restraint by police.
In the Good Ol’ Days, this kind of scrutiny didn’t exist and most Americans were unfamiliar with police uses of force. Movies usually showed cops as benign or virtuous. Sheriffs, Texas Rangers and other frontier “peace keepers” shot troublemakers. Exceptions to this propaganda were photos in the news media of police working as strike breakers, segregation enforcers, or attacking civil rights marchers and demonstrators in the South.
When I was a police reporter, I knew that my father’s father was our hometown’s first motorcycle cop. Grandpa Jack, whom I never knew, also was handy with his “slap jack,” according to the 1960s chief who knew him in the ’30s. That wasn’t part of the family legend. A slap jack is a handheld, flat leather device sometimes loaded with lead shot. Swung hard enough, it wraps around an offender’s limb or head with stunning force. No one had photos of that.
The chief also recalled that Grandpa patrolled the logger bars with his English Mastiff. . . but without a leash or collar. No photos of that, either. Grandpa Jack died in bed. I never saw the slap jack but I inherited his Smith & Wesson .38 police revolver with live brass cartridges so old and green that they must have been in the cylinder when he last carried it.
Even when force isn’t involved, police don’t like being photographed. All over the nation, they harass journalists and others taking their photos. Sometimes, photos don’t even involve police. Think malls, mass transit, airports, energy facilities.
“There is a widespread, continuing pattern of officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply,” Chris Calabrese, of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Observer.
Antiterrorism paranoia or “C.Y.A.” sometimes is invoked. I’ve written about this before, in the context of Britain’s nanny state and Ohio student photographers being harassed and/or arrested in campus-area confrontations.
What’s fascinating is the general absence of complaints against Cincinnati police from people with cameras. Officers might be uncommunicative, but they haven’t been confiscating cameras or arresting people who use them. That’s why the interference with voters using digital cameras at a Steve Chabot public meeting was so unusual. The cop said he was following orders from Chabot’s people.
When we talk about images of police officers, we’re not talking about revealing undercover identities. Masked officers remain masked in photos. Last week, however, the NYPD busted a guy who photographed an unmarked car being used for surveillance at Occupy Wall Street and the car’s license plate. Legal but provocative. Other officers being photographed are not any more identifiable than they are on daily patrol.
The catch is that videos often catch what the NFL calls “the second punch.” That’s an opposing player’s response that refs see after the original, unseen provocation. Police use of force sometimes follows actions beyond dashboard cameras or out of the view of microcams that some cops are wearing. As in the NFL, we often don’t know what provoked police, but bystanders’ camera phones capture the forceful response.
Sometimes, officers’ excessive force is evident. That was the case when an NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed unthreatening female demonstrators penned by police during an Occupy Wall Street demo. Video of the scene — moments before Bologna sprayed the women — shows cell phones being used as cameras by the nonviolent demonstrators. He didn’t care. He’s facing an internal investigation for that use of force.
In the same way, a tiny 84-year-old protester was pepper sprayed so heavily by Seattle police last week that it dripped from her face and she became a pinup illustrating police force.
And there are online camera phone images of a campus cop using an industrial size canister to blast pepper spray in the faces of seated, peaceful students in a demo at the University of California, Davis. They don’t even resist the cop’s assault and he obviously doesn’t give a shit who sees what he’s doing.
Two or three officers have been suspended and the chancellor — whose initial anti-student comments bordered on vicious — might be fighting for her job, too. Student contempt for her was awe-inspiring when she walked to her car through lines of angry but silent students, all caught on video.
It goes on and on.
Maybe we’re going back to the Vietnam era when many Americans saw young people as the enemy. Think May 1971 and Kent State University. That left us with the image of the young woman screaming as she knelt by one of the shooting victims. The difference is that police now are acting in full knowledge that they are being photographed by the news media or others who will post the images online. These cops don’t care.
Going well beyond pepper spray, NYPD sensitivity to photographers exploded last week when cops evicted Occupy Wall Street campers from Zuccotti Park. Various news sources say cops arrested and/or roughed reporters and photographers as part of NYPD’s effort to limit journalists’ access when protesters were forcibly evicted. It was unclear whether arrested or beaten journalists were part of the protest, embedded in the protest, or otherwise indistinguishable from protesters.
Some, however, said they showed NYPD press cards to no avail; they worked for the AP or the New York dailies. Many more apparently worked — and I’m not sure what that means — for online sites and blogs. I’ll wait for another time to dig into the “who is a journalist” debate, but the online world has made an already blurred identification fuzzier; not everyone with a camera phone is a journalist.
A lot of what I read about police/photographer confrontations comes from websites created by editors at the Poynter Institute in Florida. Poynter is a nonpartisan in-service training site for working journalists. It also publishes a daily aggregation of news-related items from other websites and publications. Two of our trades top ethicists also blog there.
Poynter Online quoted the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal and WITI-TV when it reported that photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff was wearing media credentials and “was clearly not part of the protest” when city police arrested her Wednesday near the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Police said Wentz-Graff “never identified herself as a journalist to officers.” It’s the second time in the past two months that Milwaukee police have arrested a working photojournalist. A WITI-TV videographer was arrested in September while covering a house fire.
At least in Los Angeles, three photographers are striking back, according to Poynter’s Bob Andelman. Quoting The Los Angeles Times, he said news and other professional photographers claim they are being singled out for harassment by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Their federal lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Southern California.
The Times said the suit alleges the Sheriff’s Department and deputies “have repeatedly” subjected photographers “to detention, search and interrogation simply because they took pictures” from public streets of places such as Metro turnstiles, oil refineries or near a Long Beach courthouse.
Plaintiffs are photographers Shawn Nee, Gregory Moore and Shane Quentin and the National Photographers’ Rights Organization. Nee is described in the filing as an “aspiring” photojournalist, Moore shoots for The Long Beach Post, and Quentin is a freelancer.
The Times said Nee was detained in October 2009 and searched while shooting pictures of the subway; the deputy also “threatened to forward Nee’s name to counterterrorism so it could be added to an FBI ‘hit list’.” The incident was captured on video but the deputy was not disciplined for his rough handling of the photographer.
“Photographers in Los Angeles and nationwide are increasingly subject to harassment by police officers,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression.” Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said that the sheriff’s actions toward photographers “violates the Constitution’s core protections” and that “to single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.”
My personal experience with police violence came during a political demonstration when I worked for a Rome daily. I was there with my camera and when an aggressive officer approached me with obvious intent to do harm, I held up my ID with “stampa” (press) written on it. “Bene,” he said, and swung his club.”
Freedom of speech and freedom of speech are rights that are essential to maintaining our freedom and democracy. Don’t sit idly by as they are taken away from us. Contact your local representatives to remove these odious statutes from the books.