Citizens Are Winning the Battle Over Cops and Cameras

Jennifer Foster, a tourist from Florence, Arizona, was walking in Times Square on a cold night in November and came across a New York City police officer giving a barefoot homeless man a pair of all-weather boots he had purchased out of his own pocket. Moved, she took out her cell phone and snapped a picture.

Jennifer Foster's cell phone image of Officer Lawrence DePrimo and a homeless man on Times SquareJennifer Foster's cell phone image of Officer Lawrence DePrimo and a homeless man on Times Square

If this officer had, instead, decided to beat this homeless man with a baton, it’s likely Ms Foster would have been intimidated, harassed or even arrested for doing what she did. In this case, the laudable actions of Officer Lawrence DePrimo went viral and he‘s become a national hero with an appearance on Good Morning America and more. It was unplanned good PR based on authentic human compassion. The officer reportedly was not aware of the tourist with the cell phone camera. He was acting as “New York’s finest.”

Ms Foster reported on her Facebook page that Officer DePrimo told the man, “I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let’s put them on and take care of you.” He, then, helped the man put on his socks and the new warm boots.

Truth be told, this kind of unsung compassion goes on all the time. Teachers are notorious for spending their own money and time to buy poor, needy kids things not provided by the school system — even breakfast. Similarly, people in a range of service professions spend their own resources to help people ignored by cold-blooded institutions. US military personnel do it all the time as they serve in foreign locales. I saw it in Viet Nam when I was there as a kid with my fellow soldiers, all of us, in my view, serving the larger, destructive institution of American imperialism.

To me, such cases are examples of bottom-up decency in a world too often overwhelmed by top-down institutional callousness.

Cops Versus Civilians With Cameras

The Officer DePrimo incident naturally opens up the controversial issue of cops and cameras, a legal/cultural flashpoint created by the mushrooming presence of small cameras in the hands of common citizens who some cops — sometimes hopped up on ego or adrenaline — frequently choose to treat as common criminals.

Citizens videotaping copsCitizens videotaping cops

Last week, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a case that had been overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The original case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in an Illinois federal district court and focused on an Illinois law that says it’s a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for an ordinary, tax-paying citizen to videotape a police officer doing his or her public duty. The law fell back on wiretapping laws that make it illegal to tape record a person without his or her consent. Thus, the audio element of videotaping has become a popular ruse for cops to intimidate video recording of their activities.

The 7th Circuit said the Illinois law was likely unconstitutional. By refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court was siding with the 7th circuit ruling. This follows on a Boston federal court ruling last year that also sided with the right of citizens to photograph and film police doing their public duty. Most important, the Illinois ruling has put an end to using old wiretapping laws to intimidate tax-paying citizens from recording the public activities of their public servants.

A surf through the You Tubes of encounters between civilian videographers shows how frequently police officers cite the wiretapping rule. A You Tube involving a Buck County, Pennsylvania, protest group opposed to the Philadelphia Gun Club’s pigeon shoots is instructive.

The videographer is a lawyer who knows the law and runs circles around the police officer who is clearly sympathetic to the Gun Club owners. He repeatedly tells her she must shut down her camera due to the wiretapping ruse. She keeps telling him he’s wrong and keeps shooting, essentially daring him to arrest her, which he does not do. The pigeon shoots are exercises in willful ruthlessness in which gun club members line up with shotguns and shoot pigeons released into a field overlooking the Delaware River. The protesters film the pigeons in their death agonies. The group is called SHARK — for Showing Animals Respect and Kindness. They are relentless in their use of the video camera as a tool of protest.

The issue of cameras and cops is still not fully worked out legally. The online site Cop Block has attempted to amass information on cases across the nation. (Here’s an example of a kid who put a video cam on his dashboard and thwarted a clearly rotten cop.) Cops still try to strong arm, threaten and bluff citizens into shutting down their cameras when they don’t have to. Now, in Illinois, they have been set back seriously and the First Amendment has won a round.

Civilians Should Also Record Good Cops

Officer Lawrence Deprimo is the kind of police officer most of us want walking a beat in our cities. For example, we need more cops like Officer DePrimos in leadership in the dismally failed Drug War. Thanks to a citizen with a camera we know about Officer DePrimo. Let’s hope his 15 minutes of fame, along with decisions like those of the 7th Circuit and the US Supreme Court, can facilitate two things:

One, that more citizens will feel free to record good cops doing good public service deeds and put those images up on You Tube, Facebook etc. And, two, that more citizens will also develop the sense of mission and find the courage to use their new technological tools to record bad cops doing bad or harmful things — and to publicize those images as well.

The combination of citizens honoring those worthy of honor and scrutinizing those worthy of scrutinization can only improve our police departments across the country and, thus, lead to more good cops and fewer bad cops.

Citizens empowered with cameras are good for America.