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OPINION | COLUMNIST: Citizens have right to record police activity

by The Baltimore Sun | May 15, 2021 at 10:11 a.m.

Self-proclaimed "First Amendment auditor" Sean-Paul Reyes found himself in handcuffs and sitting on the curb when he tried to film the traffic stop of another man in Harford County, Maryland, over the weekend. Body camera video posted to the Harford Sheriff's Office Facebook page shows an encounter that escalated probably far more than it should have.

Senior Deputy Keith Jackson, as a second officer stands by, was getting ready to search the car of a 21-year-old allegedly pulled over for speeding and found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana. Then, Reyes approaches the area from a nearby gas station.

Jackson orders him to stop, but he keeps coming forward until he gets to the sidewalk, which he declares a public space where he is free to stand. The officer asks Reyes to back up several times and pulls out his stun gun when Reyes doesn't comply.

In charging documents, Jackson said that Reyes was confrontational. But one could argue that the officer was also aggressive in his actions. The deputy also said Reyes approached from behind the police cars, even though video shows that Reyes was several feet away when Jackson noted his presence.

It was not as if he was trying to sneak onto the scene. He had his cellphone out clearly recording and he told the officer what he was doing. Reyes says it's something he does all over the country as part of a personal crusade to hold police accountable.

Should he have backed up when the officer asked him to? Probably. Did he look to be enough of a danger for a stun gun to be pulled? Not from the videotape that we saw. Annoying, maybe. Unwanted, definitely.

He was not something officers want to deal with during an arrest, but it seemed like there could have been a better way to handle it.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is conducting an administrative investigation into the incident and we would hope they drop the charges of obstruction and hindering brought against Reyes. Jackson and other law enforcement are going to have to learn to keep their cool as recording arrests become the norm.

The conviction of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, which relied heavily on footage from witnesses' cellphones, showed that video is a powerful tool in combating police misconduct. And people are well within their rights to record.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice reprimanded the Baltimore Police Department, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland, for failing to support citizens broad recording rights.

Harford County's policy is that filming is allowed by citizens "as long as their location, action or behavior" does not "create a legitimate, articulable threat to officer safety or the safety of others, or an unlawful hindrance to successful resolution of the law enforcement activity."

Further protections are coming, thanks to a law passed by Maryland lawmakers in the most recent legislative session, (House Bill 670), as part of landmark police reform. Under that law a police officer can't prohibit recording as long as the citizen is acting "lawfully and safely."

Videotaping certainly shouldn't interfere with the an arrest or stop, but the police are given too much leeway in deciding how that is interpreted.

Can an officer make a bystander go 100 feet away where videotaping might not capture much under the guise of being safe? Jackson tells Reyes he is allowed to video, but wants him to stand in a nearby parking lot, explaining that officers "drop a bubble on the area we are in" when conducting a stop.

Officers shouldn't make it so difficult to videotape stops and arrests.

If the Chauvins of the world are anomalies -- bad apples -- then most cops are doing the right thing and shouldn't be bothered by recordings. Allowing it shows the police are willing to be transparent and helps build better relations with the community.

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