A video recently surfaced on YouTube showing a police officer pulling and pointing his gun at a man filming his activity. As a photographer, it would be easy to side with the cameraman but let’s try to see what happened and check both sides of the story.
What Happened in the Video?
The eight minute video is seen from the man camera presumably installed on the videographer’s chest, but he also carries a GoPro mounted on some handle or mini-steadycam. The videographer approaches a cop standing next to his police car and films him with the GoPro steadycam. The cop asks several times, “What are you filming for sir?” but the videographer doesn’t respond. Eventually, the cop politely asks the videographer to “put it down” (the steadycam) because he “doesn’t know what that is.” The videographer finally acknowledges the officer by saying “it’s a camera, you know what that is.” At this point, things escalate very quickly, and as the cop puts his hand on his weapon, the videographer’s voice becomes more aggressive. Eventually, the cop grabs his gun (pointing down) and the man shouts at the police officer. Finally, the cop points the gun at the man and keeps asking him to put “this thing down” which only reinforces the fury of the videographer. A few seconds later, two more officers show up, and the first cop lowers his gun. The next six minutes of the video is an uninterrupted flow of shouting and miscommunication between the officers and the man who calls the first cop a “tyrant” and other colorful names (pu**y, son of a b****).
A Provoking Videographer or an Unprofessional Police Officer?
I must admit that I feel very uneasy watching this video. It seems that the cop didn’t have to point his weapon at the videographer but, on the other hand, the man was not very cooperative by not answering the officer’s question in the first place. At no point was the police officer disrespectful. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable with the shape of the steadycam, he repeatedly said: “I don’t know what this is.” Faced with an uncooperative person standing a few feet away from him he may have felt threatened. It may sound stupid, but in a country full of firearms, and with an average of one cop shot to death per week, cops can be on edge. On the other side, the man was merely filming police activity and started shouting and calling names only after the cop grabbed his weapon. According to the local news report, the videographer is the founder of California Citizens Watch, a group that audits government entities. The YouTube account bears the same name. A quick look at his videos shows other “cop watch” films conducted by the same man. At this point, everything is up to interpretation. Pro-cop groups will say that this man was confronting an officer, looking to trigger an incident by not being cooperative. Pro-civil rights groups will argue that cop abuses are common in this country and the law gives citizens in some states the right to document police activity. California is one of them thanks to the Penal Code Section 148(g).
The fact that a person takes a photograph or makes an audio or video recording of a public officer or peace officer, while the officer is in a public place or the person taking the picture or making the recording is in a place he or she has the right to be, does not constitute, in and of itself, a violation of subdivision (a), nor does it constitute reasonable suspicion to detain the person or probable cause to arrest the person.
The videographer didn't have to comply with the officer’s request to put is camera down, and he only became upset and angry after the cop pointed his gun at him, which is understandable. There is some truth on both sides of the story. Cops feel vulnerable while on duty. It might be a long shot, but there have been several cases of criminals and terrorists filming their actions while committing homicides. Conversely, cop watch activists are necessary to raise awareness and prevent law enforcement abuses by restoring some balance of power. Far too many times in this country, cops walked away free of charge after shooting innocent people or photographers for absolutely no reasons.
As a landscape and urban photographer, I had many encounters with law enforcement personnel over the years, and being cooperative and friendly goes a long way. Sure, some of them were rude at first, but there is no need to escalate the issue. Plus, keep in mind that in the absence of a recording, it will be your word against the officer and the outcome may not be favorable for you. Like photographers, cops are people with good and bad days. We’ve all witnessed production assistants being poorly treated by photographers on set for no reasons, but angry artist don’t usually carry a gun. Attitude is important. In case of contact with the cops, it’s possible to be cooperative and polite without being submissive. State your right but follow the officer’s instructions, be calm and courteous.
Being a police officer is not easy but having the power to legally kill people during your job comes with extra-responsibility. Bad temper and poor judgment can cost lives, which is not acceptable. Too many times in the past, law enforcement agents got away with shooting people for dubious reasons. Lawmakers gave citizens the right and legal protection to document police activity in order create a checks and balances system and avoid abuses. Watching the video, it seems that the officer crossed the line by pointing the gun at a man that was not constituting an immediate threat despite what some may describe as an “annoying behavior.” But a YouTube video does not constitute an absolute proof as we don’t know the full extent of the story and I’m not a judge. Hopefully, the Justice and Internal Affairs department will be able to sort this out and take this officer out of the streets if necessary. For now, let’s remain calm without fueling the internet hysteria.
In any case, if an angry police officer confronts you during your work as a photographer, do not resist, stay calm and comply with the officer’s instructions — even if he is wrong. There will be plenty of time later on to contest the policeman’s actions. Resisting will only make your situation worse and could justify abusive behaviors afterward.