DC police chief issues extremely excellent guidelines on citizens taking pictures of cops

As part of a settlement with Jerome Vorus, who was ordered to stop taking pictures by DC cops, DC chief of police Cathy Lanier has issued guidelines to her officers on citizen photography of police activities. They are extremely excellent guidelines, too, as Timothy Lee writes in Ars Technica:

"A bystander has the same right to take photographs or make recordings as a member of the media," Chief Lanier writes. The First Amendment protects the right to record the activities of police officers, not only in public places such as parks and sidewalks, but also in "an individual’s home or business, common areas of public and private facilities and buildings, and any other public or private facility at which the individual has a legal right to be present."

Lanier says that if an officer sees an individual recording his or her actions, the officer may not use that as a basis to ask the citizen for ID, demand an explanation for the recording, deliberately obstruct the camera, or arrest the citizen. And she stresses that under no circumstances should the citizen be asked to stop recording.

That applies even in cases where the citizen is recording "from a position that impedes or interferes with the safety of members or their ability to perform their duties." In that situation, she says, the officer may ask the person to move out of the way, but the officer "shall not order the person to stop photographing or recording."

She also notes that "a person has the right to express criticism of the police activity being observed."

There is more, and it's all excellent. We have the good folks at the ACLU to thank for helping Mr Vorus win his settlement with the DC police.

DC police chief announces shockingly reasonable cell camera policy (Thanks, Ben!)

(Image: 12.MPDC.HorseMounted.SE.WDC.23March2012, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from perspective's photostream)


  1. Cmaaaahn, first you tell me gold medals aren’t really made of gold, and now we can video record the police?  Cmahhhhn, what’s the catch???

    1. On the plus side, we’ll be getting an answer to the question, “And how are they going to punish people who violate these rules?” a lot sooner than I would have expected.

      I hope it’s a BETTER answer than what I’m expecting, too.

  2. All well and good but…you can’t police a civilian population with a paramilitary force. When that changes then maybe the balance of power will be more equitable.

  3. Let’s not overlook the fact that this policy wasn’t enacted freely as a gesture of goodwill by the police department.  It took a major lawsuit and the threat of serious legal consequences for the department before the police were willing to issue this order.

    And make no mistake, this order doesn’t grant the right to record.  We already had the right to record, it was just routinely being violated.  This order is basically telling cops that on this particular issue, they should now obey the law.

  4. “a person has the right to express criticism of the police activity being observed.”
    Where I come from that’s worth a charge of Interfering With Official Acts.

    The only way in NYC not to have police troubles is to be white, well dressed, and stick to the right neighborhoods.

  5. As a DC resident, Police Chief Lanier is probably the best chief we’ve ever had.  I’m glad she released these guidelines to the department.  I figure there will still be cops that will violate this – after all, they don’t want to lose their jobs for being taped doing something wrong.  They probably like their chances getting busted for breaking somebody’s phone as opposed to being the next star of a Rodney King-style video.

  6. ZikZak comment is very true to the heart of the issue.  If you are in Maryland and you film a cop doing something stupid, you will get arrested.  You will need to higher legal representation.  You will spend time and money getting the issue addressed.  Then the charges are dropped so that the law is never taken before a higher court.

    Marylands approach concerning video taping bad behavior of cops is really scary.

    That states Police union makes sure they can get away with a lot and not worry about it.

  7. Officer: “Why yes, go ahead and film away.”
    Cameraman: “Thank you.”
    Later, Officer: “I am going to have to confiscate your camera as evidence in this here crime we’ve been investigating. Sorry (snicker).”

    1. As I understand it, cops can’t legally confiscate third party property as evidence except in pretty unusual circumstances.  Generally, they have to subpoena your evidence through the court.  Which is a lot less likely, and obviously gives you the opportunity to make a copy before turning it over.

      The exception being if there’s a risk that you’ll destroy evidence that’s critical to the investigation or prosecution of a crime.  Since you’re presumably filming stuff that several cops are directly witnessing, it’d be hard to make a case that they need it for their investigation.  Cops do seize cameras for evidence frequently some places, but I’m not aware of a case where it worked as justification for stealing the camera of someone just for recording cops.

  8. I agree with ZikZak on this one.  Yeah, it took a lawsuit but at least the “guidelines”  were put into place.  And as someone else pointed out, promptly violated.  On the bright side, it sounds like DC has a very good mayor in MS Chief Lanier.  But sadly, it will most likely take a few more lawsuits to settle the matter for good.  Though I”m sure that the DCPD and the DC police union  have a lawyer or two on the payroll it’s still expensive to defend these suits.  And even more expensive if you loses.  I’m sure that DC would more stringent in enforcing these guidelines if it costs them a lot of money that the most likely don’t have to spare.  

  9. You guys remind me of my husband, there is always a “but”!  never satisfied if she had said somthing else an other group would be up in arms! Now this is good news but people are already finding holes in this, “the Buts!” the what if’s” The just way and see!”

    nothing is good enough!  because that would leave you all with nothing to complain about and God forbid!

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