How to record the cops

Radley Balko says, "My column this week looks at the range of cameras, software, and other technology available for citizens interested in recording on-duty police officers."
Qik and UStream, two services available for both the iPhone and Android phones, allow instant online video streaming and archiving. Once you stop recording, the video is instantly saved online. Both services also allow you to send out a mass email or notice to your Twitter followers when you have posted a new video from your phone. Not only will your video of police misconduct be preserved, but so will the video of the police officer illegally confiscating your phone (assuming you continue recording until that point).

Neither Qik nor UStream market themselves for this purpose, and it probably would not make good business sense for them to do so, given the risk of angering law enforcement agencies and attracting attention from regulators. But it's hard to overstate the power of streaming and off-site archiving. Prior to this technology, prosecutors and the courts nearly always deferred to the police narrative; now that narrative has to be consistent with independently recorded evidence. And as examples of police reports contradicted by video become increasingly common, a couple of things are likely to happen: Prosecutors and courts will be less inclined to uncritically accept police testimony, even in cases where there is no video, and bad cops will be deterred by the knowledge that their misconduct is apt to be recorded.

How to Record the Cops: A guide to the technology for keeping government accountable


  1. good! because cops need to be constantly watched. they’re shifty characters and bound to be up to no good. you know the sorts i’m talk’n’bout. there should be cameras on every phone pole and above privet hedge! because constant vigilance is our only hope against these miscreants in blue, these nogoodnicks in uniform! why, we should fund and equip a special force to “police” (if you will) these officially sanctioned criminals in training! only then will it be safe to walk the streets free from fear. oh, and then we need someone to watch this latter force, because you just know they’ll be going bad too…yep

  2. The problem with doing this is that you could run into trouble with ancient and outdated wiretapping laws for recording a police officer. This happened recently with a guy that got pulled over while driving his motorcycle (he had a camera mounted on his helmet btw), and got slapped with a BS lawsuit.

  3. Not there yet. I legal observe and know that the target will erase the video as soon as they can if they can.

    For anyone who has tried this, how fast do the services “instantly” download the video, once the filming stops? That doesn’t sound reliable. In additoin the articles says the video can be erased from the phone eventhough it is off the phone.

    And another thing, its actuall illegale to record police in some states. Wow.

  4. I want something like this but for my home so if someone breaks in a motion detector activates cameras which upload off site so you can see who did it even if you lose your recording device.

  5. I wonder if it would be a good idea for it to be standard procedure / required for cops to have recording gear running when they’re on duty. It’d be good for the cops to have all that evidence archived, constantly and automatically, and it’d be good for deterring the police from behaving badly.
    If a cop *didn’t* have standard video/audio footage of some arrest it wouldn’t automatically invalidate it, but if it came to trial they’d have to explain why they weren’t following procedure / recording…
    What do people think of that? I wonder if as a (good/honest) cop that’d be something you’d actually want or not (seems like it’d make your job easier – no more he-said/she-said, harder to get off on technicalities, etc)

  6. When I had my Treo Palm-OS based phone, I used software called Callrec, that had a “hidden record” button.
    I could discretely tap the select button under the volume control, and the phone would silently record for up as long as there was space on the SD card and the battery kept up.
    It could go at least 10 hours.

    If I ever got arrested, and even handcuffed, I could reach into my pocket and have an exact audio log of everything, and unless someone knew *exactly* what to look for, the phone wouldn’t appear to be out of the ordinary at all.

    Perhaps I may make some kind off “panic button” for Android, if I had the time.

    One empowering thing about the huge advancements made in data storage and surveillance technology is how it can empower the little guy.

    In the near future, this technology will be ubiquitous, and *everyone* can get the see the whole story when an incident goes down.

  7. I’d like to have a device like this ready, but I divide my time between Pennsylvania and Virginia, two states (I think, I know at least PA) that require both parties to know about recordings to make them legal.

    Would I have to let a cop know that I’m recording them? If I do, could they confiscate my phone? And if I don’t tell them, will that recording be inadmissible in court because I didn’t inform them I was recording?

    1. wear a button with a little EULA that states that you may be recording audio/video of your surroundings. any interaction with you and a third party indicates the acceptance of these terms by the 3rd party.

      now they were notified. it’s not your problem if they can’t read…

  8. I recently needed to record an interaction with a lying sack of shit without his knowledge. As a private citizen, I can do that, hooray! I just hung a pair of headphones and a cheap chinese MP3 player around my neck, and while waiting in line I hummed and tapped my fingers… then when I got up front I pulled off the headphones and pressed “stop” (except what I really pressed was “Record”). Got a thousand bucks in the settlement, plus a refund, and never even had to go to court.

  9. Don’t the wiretap laws only refer to audio? If either app can have the sound recording turned off then surely this would allow a legal compromise? You may not get the speech, but at least you get the actions.

  10. saw this on gizmodo earlier this year regarding recording law enforcement:

    “Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.”

    Are Cameras the New Guns

  11. i used this for g20 and olympics protest in canada this year, both qik and ustream. they are great, at one point 350 people were watching live… and it will save. auto update on twitter, facebook, youtube…

    now, if someone could make an app to stream a video to a server of my choice, that would be really helpful.

    fuck to police.

    -dan kellar
    G20 alternative media centre.

    1. I was one of the people watching the alternative media streams live from the G20. If you are one of those who were wrongfully detained, I wish you luck in the class action suit.

      Joss Whedon had it right – “Can’t stop the signal, Mal.”

  12. I like the low-tech approach myself, but I welcome all strategies.

    At the last demo that I went to this weekend, I brought my big ’70s Cannon film SLR. It’s heavy and not discrete, but I think it looks a little more intimidating when it is pointed at you. It gives you that big black-eyed cyclops look that has the potential to prevent police abuses before they happen.

    Maybe I’m fantasizing? It’s fun to get that camera some fresh air anyways.

  13. Or you could get a Looxcie. Stick it to your glasses, o wanna-be gargoyle, and at the press of a button it dumps the last 30 seconds to the net via your Android phone.

  14. Re: wiretap laws:

    I was under the impression that you simply need to give notification that you’re recording or be really obvious about it. If the other party sticks around their consent is implied. If you’re pointing your iPhone at a cop, it’s pretty clear that you’re recording, so shouldn’t you be OK?

    As an aside, I’ve never understood why illegally gathered evidence can’t be used by the defense in a criminal case.

  15. Patrick,
    It varies by state in the US. In my state only one party needs to know something is being taped. (I do like the button idea -CYA!).

    The reason unlawful recordings are not allowed in court is because it encourage people to record unlawfully and neuters the unlawful recording law. I’m not promoting a position, just noting this.

    Also, for the longest time security cameras did not have mics and companies would not buy them for their security systems because the spoken word was more protected than the image. Now, however, the mics are everywhere. Not sure what changed if anything.

  16. I too think all on duty LEOs should have constant video and audio recording. How expensive is a web cam and a couple GB of SD memory?

    So, legal scholars, if you notify by saying “This interaction will be recorded” and they do not consent, what is the fall out? Can a recording device be confiscated or forced to be shut off? Do they just stop and walk away?

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