The last week has been a powerful reminder of how effective video can be in holding law enforcement accountable. On May 25, footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes as he lost consciousness and was eventually pronounced dead was captured by bystanders and uploaded online. His killing sparked protests across the country, where police have responded to demonstrators with excessive shows of force and unwarranted acts of brutality. Many of these instances have come to light only because people have their phones out and running, ready to record. While recording the police is often an essential tool, it can be dangerous. Below are some ways you can hold police accountable while maintaining your own safety.
Recording the police is protected by the First Amendment
Recording the police, particularly when they are carrying out their duties in a public space, is a constitutional right. Police don't always seem to be aware of this, or would simply rather not be subjected to this type of potential scrutiny, and may attempt to stop you from recording.
Steven Silverman, the Executive Director of Flex Your Rights, a non-profit organization that aims to educate the public on their rights during police encounters, notes that officers will sometimes try to shoo away onlookers, particularly those who are filming. "If an officer says something like, 'You have to put your phone away,' or 'Get out of here,' it's important to be able to stand your ground in that situation and know how to engage," he tells Mic. Silverman's advice is to always respond by saying something along the lines of, "Officer, recording the police is a First Amendment-protected activity." Keep the communication with the officer relatively cordial rather than antagonistic when possible, but make it clear that you understand your rights and won't be dissuaded from exercising them.
Keep a safe distance
Police might view your act of recording as somehow invasive or interfering and attempt to stop you. But if you maintain a reasonable distance from the officer and the action they are carrying out, you should be within your rights to continue recording. "If the officer has to take steps toward you to touch you, you're probably at a safe distance," Silverman says.
Keeping yourself at least six feet away from officers is usually advised, but the police might ask you to stand farther back — either because they believe they need more room or because they are trying to obscure your view. Silverman describes it as a dance: it might be worth giving them the space they request if it means you can continue filming the interaction. "As long as they don't ask you to step back so far where you can't capture what's happening," he says.
Know the risks
While filming the police may be within your rights, it doesn't mean that you won't face potential consequences or retribution for doing so. A number of videos over the course of the last week have shown police trying to obscure the views of people filming them, firing pellets at onlookers with their phones out, approaching with batons, and pepper-spraying others. There is also a chance that you will be arrested. "You have to acknowledge that you're doing something brave, but you are putting yourself in a position where you could be arrested — and not necessarily lawfully," Silverman says.
He advises that you think through these potential outcomes beforehand so you are prepared for them. Take into account your identity and how police might react to you. "It's important to be able to ask yourself before you even film the police, how far are you interested in going?" If you are arrested, the footage you take might help you in court and can get charges thrown out. But that won't change what happens in the moment. Police have the discretionary power to arrest you if they decide that you are obstructing justice or interfering in any way. Know the potential escalation from the police that you might face.
It doesn't matter how you record, just do it
To capture the actions of the police, you don't need to put a whole lot of thought into using the right app or finding the right service. There have been incidents of police brutality uploaded everywhere from Instagram and Snapchat to unexpected places like TikTok. "There is no killer app," Silverman says. Just record.
The native apps on your smartphone are likely more than good enough to do the job. Silverman simply suggests making sure they are set up to capture the footage in the cloud rather than keeping them on the device. If you are using an iPhone, you can set up your device so that all photos and videos you take are stored in iCloud and can be accessed anywhere from any device. If you use an Android phone, set it up so that your captures are automatically uploaded to Google Photos. Live streaming apps are also a very useful tool for this purpose, as not only do they immediately create a cloud-based backup, but they are often public and can be reviewed and clipped by others.
Be aware of who you’re filming
When recording the police, particularly at a protest, it’s important to be mindful of other people who might get caught in the frame. Photos and videos shared online can and have been used by law enforcement agencies to identify people in crowds. Try to get permission from people who may be identifiable in your photos and videos before sharing them. Remember that some demonstrators may face negative repercussions if they are identified, especially if they are undocumented.
There are a number of photo and video editing tools online that can blur or obscure faces. YouTube Studio has a built-in tool for identifying and automatically blurring faces throughout a video. Tools within apps like Snapchat and Instagram can also be useful for quick and dirty edits to help protect bystanders.
Protect your phone
If you are recording and the police confront you, they may ask you to give up your device or even just take it from you. If that happens, this is where basic security protections can help you. Make sure your device is passcode protected, and if the police ask for your passcode, Silverman advises not giving it to them. "The law isn't completely settled on this, but generally they need to get a warrant in order to force you to give up your passcode. I would generally suggest to not give it to them," he says.
Also, be aware that law enforcement may be using surveillance tools, including cell-site simulators like Stingrays. These tools can capture phone information including location, phone number, and in some cases the content of texts and phone calls. Encrypted communications apps like Signal is recommended to keep your conversations protected. Some security experts suggest getting a burner phone to avoid being identified by these tools, or to leave your phone at home entirely.