The National Press Photographers’ Association (NPPA) wrote a letter to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) after police interfered with an individual who was trying to record a young man being arrested. The letter notes police interfered with this person less than 24 hours after an order was issued to police directing all personnel to not “prevent or prohibit any person’s ability to observe, photograph and/or make a video recording (with or without simultaneous audio recording) of police activity” in public.

The incident occurred on February 10. Police accused Scott Cover of loitering when he was trying to record video of an arrest.

Cover approached officers that had the young man on the ground in front of a corner property. A female officer noticed Cover seconds after he began recording. The officer told him he had to go. When he refused, she came over to him and said he had to leave.

The female officer told him to walk down the street. He reminded officers there was a standing order to allow people to record without interference. She began to count down the warnings she would give him before arresting him saying she was on two and he had one more warning left.

A male officer piped up, “Nobody took your phone away. You can record all you want.” To which Cover said, “Huh?” The male officer said something again about taking his phone away. Cover  backtracked down the street, but as he moved away, he kept the arrest and police in frame. He backpedaled never turning his back to police.

“Sir, you’re asked to leave. I’m telling you. You’re gonna be next, sir,” the female officer said.

She and other officers left the scene of the arrest and rushed down the street toward Cover. She asked him how many times did I ask you to leave. She got up really close to him and demanded he give her his ID.

Here is video of the incident:

The letter from the NPPA states:

Mr. Cover was told by officers that “he was loitering, and that he had to move along or risk arrest.” This action by your officers appears to be in direct contravention of both the letter and spirit of a policy that was just implemented in order to preempt a lawsuit against your department for flagrant violations of citizens’ constitutional rights to observe and record police activity in public.

Though it should be unnecessary, the NPPA’s letter goes on to explain how it is unlikely that Cover was ever violating the city’s ordinance on “loitering” when he was recording.

It continues by referencing the directive recently issued to Baltimore police to not interfere with recording:

General Order “requiring” certain “action” during “routine encounters with the general public” states that “upon discovery that a bystander is observing, photographing, or video recording the conduct of police activity: DO NOT impede or prevent the bystander’s ability to continue doing so based solely on your discovery of his/her presence.” “BEFORE taking any police action which would stop a bystander from observing, photographing, or  video recording the conduct of police activity, Officer(s) must have observed the bystander committing some act that falls within one of the six numbered conditions listed in . . . this Order . . . ” (emphasis in the originals). And despite the fact that Mr. Cover did nothing more than record on a city street your supervisory officer orders him to move under threat of arrest.

What is particularly troubling isn’t just the fact he was eventually forced to produce an ID, so he could be logged into the system in case this happened again.  It’s also the fact that a male officer actually said they hadn’t taken his phone away so there was nothing wrong going on here. The male officer apparently believes a person can be told to go anywhere and officers can physically remove the person and even place the person under arrest so long as they don’t touch any electronic device the person might be using to record. That seems to be the male officer’s understanding of an order to not interfere with recording.

The lawsuit the BPD directive was likely preempting involves an incident in May 2010, when Christopher Sharp was at the “135th running of the Preakness Stakes.” According to the ACLU of Maryland, Sharp “used his cell phone camera to video and audio record the arrest and beating by officers of an acquaintance at Pimlico Race Course. Officers of the Baltimore Police Department stopped him, seized his cell phone, and detained him while one officer left the area with his phone. After the officer returned the phone, Sharp discovered that the officers had deleted video of the arrest and beating and all other of his videos, including many of his young son.”

The Baltimore Sun, in their write-up on the new directive, mentioned a number of other incidents in addition to the Preakness Stakes incident.

Repeated incidents are what led the Sun to write in an editorial yesterday:

What city police officers need to understand — aside from the rights of U.S. citizenship, of course — is that such behavior reflects incredibly badly on them. Mr. Sharp’s cell phone may seem a minor matter to those dealing with the life and death decisions involved in combating violent crime on a daily basis, but it sends a message that officers consider themselves above the law.

Confiscating property without a warrant, denying free speech, those are the actions of thugs in some despotic regime. The department may have taken corrective action, however belatedly, but have officers learned their lesson or just changed their tactics?

The Sun suggested continued intimidation and harassment of those recording police would result in a “loss of public trust.” That is true, but, more accurately, the BPD will attract more scrutiny and attention to their department.

The right to record is fundamental, and citizens all over are moving to assert, defend and reclaim that right. That is why in Illinois, an eavesdropping law is being challenged. That is why Carlos Miller, a photojournalist arrested by Miami police during the eviction of Occupy Miami, plans to file a complaint with the Justice Department against the Miami Police Department. And that is why a coalition of media organizations and journalist groups continue to challenge the New York Police Department (NYPD), which continues to regularly obstruct the right to record, regardless of whether one has credentials or not.