There is an increasing tendency for pedestrians and bystanders to video police interactions with suspects, particularly in New York City. Yet most people aren't sure whether it's legal, or in what circumstances police can ask them to turn off their recording device. Often, the individual attempting to video the police tries to do it without being seen. Others are very direct about what they're doing, almost as if it were a challenge to the officers.
In all cases, it is very important to make sure bystanders and law enforcement all understand what the rules really are. While some police officers have stronger reactions to being recorded than others, courts have generally held it to be legal to record police in public places. But there are rules attached to this right.
There is nothing illegal about transparency
Transparency is important in interactions between police officers and citizens. Clarity reduces the risk of an officer being accused of something they didn't do, and it also reduces the risk that an officer may overuse their power or authority. The goal of transparency is one reason the NYPD began to have officers wear body cameras last year.
Body cameras and video recordings may help to reduce police misconduct. In addition, however, suspects may do or say something incriminating that is recorded on video.
NYPD body camera pilot program
This summer, the NYPD will give 1,000 body cameras to officers. Eventually, the NYPD hopes to have 18,000 body cameras in circulation, although it isn't clear when that will happen. The body camera program was initiated in 2015, in response to the cellphone video of the death of Eric Garner.
As police themselves begin to record their interactions, New Yorkers continue to video police interactions from a distance. This increased surveillance has wide-ranging implications.
Interfering with police is illegal
For bystanders, it's highly important to not interfere with officers. The NYPD policy on allowing bystanders to record police interactions with suspects is very clear that bystanders must respect the space around the officers and the incident. Police are allowed to require a safe space, and bystanders will be asked to respect that. Bystanders should also not record anything that would violate the privacy of potential victims and witnesses.
Anyone who interferes with police work can get into trouble whether they are recording or not.