The best accountability tool may be the smartphone in your pocket

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pictured: The shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, captured by a civilian’s mobile phone camera.

Since 2013, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been fighting to preserve ordinary people’s power to use recording technology to keep the police in check through aseries of lawsuits against the Philadelphia Police Department over the well documented pattern of PPD officers arresting or citing people who attempt to record police.

This “Copwatch” campaign — the name we’ve given to these lawsuits, filed on behalf of individuals arrested for observing or recording police action — suffered a setback in February 2016, when federal district court Judge Mark Kearney ruled that ordinary people do not have the right to record the police unless they simultaneously criticize the police.

Judge Kearney’s ruling is a major problem. And that problem needs to be addressed now perhaps more than ever before.

Recent attacks on police reform have been launched from both Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled that his Department of Justice will scale back its police reform activities, decreeingthat police accountability is henceforth the responsibility of local governments, not the federal government. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania General Assembly isn’t likely to help close the accountability gap left open by Attorney General Sessions. An alarming number of Pennsylvania legislators have been hard at work on measures to insulate law enforcement against oversight, including a bill that would effectively make police body camera footage unobtainable by anyone other than police and prosecutors.

With so many members of the legislative and executive branches working feverishly to cripple the public’s ability to hold police officers accountable for abuses, reform may have to come from the courts — and from We the People.

After filing briefs in October and January in opposition to Judge Kearney’s ruling, on Tuesday, ACLU-PA asked a panel of federal appeals court judges to step up and protect the most powerful tool that ordinary people have for holding the police accountable: the right to record the police.

Although many courts have recognized that documentation and communication about how police use their power is at the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to protect, the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania has yet to acknowledge that.

Over the past several years, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, timeand againwe’ve seen civilians’ photos and videos of police expose the realities of policing in an undeniably powerful way. Ordinary people’s cell phone recordings of police interactions have been a starting point for national conversations about police reform and have sparked grassroots movements seeking accountability for how — and against whom — the police use their tremendous power. And studies show that videos of police interactions can not only document abuses by law enforcement but can also deter abuses.

If allowed to stand, Judge Kearney’s ruling threatens to chill the exercise of core First Amendment freedoms, erode the supply of crucial information about policing, cut off an important societal debate, and stop police accountability movements in their tracks.

We know that protecting the public’s right to record the police plays a vital role in holding law enforcement accountable.

We hope the appeals court will embrace its vital role in safeguarding First Amendment freedoms.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Will Philadelphia’s next district attorney set juvenile lifer Terrance Lewis free? Photo from The Inquirer.

  • The Inquirer: “A judge called this juvenile lifer innocent, but he’s still in prison. Will Philly’s next DA let him go home?”

“But Lewis is — depending on your perspective — either an incredibly unlucky man or an extraordinarily lucky one. Unlucky to be charged with a crime he says he did not commit, to be tried as an adult in a state where life means life, to be appointed a lawyer who apparently never investigated his case. Lucky, because he keeps encountering more people who were out on the block that evening and are willing to testify that he wasn’t there. And lucky, because he is on the right side of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found sentences like his to be illegal. Lewis is one of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia — the largest such population in the country — being resentenced after the court banned automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2012, and then in 2016 ordered that the rule be applied retroactively. So far, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has taken a conservative approach to these cases, often making offers of 35 years to life. But after 19 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit, Lewis is hoping for a different sentence: time served.”

  • ACLU-PA: “ACLU of Pennsylvania Argues for the Right to Record the Police Before Federal Appeals Court”

“With cooperating counsel, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing two plaintiffs who photographed police at work and who were detained as a result. Rick Fields was arrested in September 2013, after he stopped to take a photo with his iPhone of a large number of Philadelphia police officers breaking up a house party across the street. One of the officers approached him, asked if he enjoyed “taking pictures of grown men,” and ordered him to leave. After Fields refused, he was handcuffed and detained in a police van, and his phone was searched in an apparent attempt to find the recordings he had made that evening. He was charged with “obstructing the highway,” but the charge was later withdrawn. The other plaintiff is Amanda Geraci, a trained legal observer who was detained by police while she was attempting to monitor police interactions during an anti-fracking protest outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in September 2012. When Geraci attempted to take photos of police arresting a protestor, a police officer pushed Geraci up against a pillar and pinned Geraci across her throat. Other police officers quickly surrounded Geraci and the officer to block other legal observers from witnessing or recording the incident, although not before several photos were taken by Geraci’s fellow legal observers. In February 2016, federal district court Judge Mark Kearney ruled that the plaintiffs do not have a First Amendment right to photograph the police unless they are doing so for the purpose of criticizing the police. Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at today’s hearing in the appeals court. ‘Ordinary people have an important role to play in holding the government accountable, and the First Amendment is one of our main sources of power,’ said Tack-Hooper. ‘Taking photos or videos of how police use their power is part of the freedom protected by the First Amendment.’”

  • More ACLU-PA: “State Senate Bill Blocks Public Access to Police Video, Undermines Accountability”

“The Pennsylvania Senate today passed legislation to severely restrict the ability of the public to access video recorded by police cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said that the bill undermines the goal of using body cameras as a means of accountability for police officers. ‘If the public cannot obtain video produced by police cameras, they shouldn’t be used at all,’ said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ‘While body cameras may be valuable to officers in carrying out their daily duties, the idea of using these cameras came to prominence because people were demanding that police operate with transparency, fairness, and accountability.’”

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