Armed with video cameras, cellphones and other devices, citizens who film police are part of a common practice nationwide, especially in the wake of multiple officer-involved shootings and controversies.
In Eugene, police are now looking at a new proposed policy — on “Recording Police Activities by the Community” — that’s designed to protect both citizens’ and officers’ legal rights.
The draft policy notes that citizens “have an unambiguous First Amendment right to record officers in public places, as long as their actions do not interfere with the officer’s duties or the safety of officers or others. Officers should assume that they are being recorded at all times when on duty in a public space.”
“The fact that recording and/or overt verbal criticism, insults or name-calling may be annoying,” the policy adds, “does not of itself justify an officer taking corrective or enforcement action or ordering that recording be stopped.”
The 3-page policy is being considered in part at the urging of civilian advocate Carol Berg Caldwell, who late last year asked the Eugene Police Commission to review how some citizens were allegedly treated while attempting to exercise their right to record police activity.
She stated before both the commission and the city’s Civilian Review Board that she had witnessed three unidentified citizens come before a Eugene Municipal Court judge for arraignment, following arrests for interfering with police, after using a camera in what they felt was a reasonable distance from the situation.
She asked for a policy that would protect citizens’ rights while also defining the “reasonable distance” that citizens must maintain when recording police activity.
Under the draft policy, that distance is left to the discretion of the officer, who must consider the totality of the circumstances regarding the particular police activity.
The police commission will discuss the draft policy at its monthly meeting on Thursday, with time for public comment. Formal policy adoption will come sometime later.
Eugene police spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin said the policy is a generic draft, provided by Lexipol, a national policy database.
Berg Caldwell said she is “really pleased” that the commission is taking up the policy. “I think it’s very reflective of the commission members, who are representatives of the community. It shows they take their tasks seriously.”
The policy notes that in public spaces, citizens “have a right to record things in plain sight or hearing,” including police activity. Citizens do not, however, have a right to enter private property or an established crime scene in order to record, the policy says.
The policy also notes that recording devices generally cannot be seized by police, without the recorder’s consent or absent the arrest of the recorder. In some circumstances, according to the policy, police can seize a recording device if they believe the recording contains evidence of a crime and they have reason to believe that the recording could be destroyed before police can obtain a search warrant affidavit.
Eugene police Sgt. Larry Crompton, a downtown patrol supervisor, said he generally doesn’t care if he’s being recorded — even if he doesn’t always like it.
“There are times when I have been having a consensual conversation, trying to explain something, and a third party comes up and starts recording and that’s annoying because I’m just trying to have a conversation, and even though they’re (in the) right (because) I am in a public place, it’s not a matter of legality at that point. It’s just a matter of respect.
“I think it’s human nature,” Crompton added. “It’s not comfortable to have someone point cameras at you while you are trying to work. It’s legal. But it’s uncomfortable. You aren’t trying to hide anything but you’re self-conscious. But it goes with the profession, you have to get used to it.”
Crompton said he believes having a formal policy will be a good thing, as it will provide greater authority for an officer who asks a citizen to step back. After a policy is adopted, he said, it won’t just be “because I said so.”
Crompton said he encounters a person with a camera about once a day, on average. While many record activities from a distance, others often stick a camera directly in his face, he said.
One size does not fit every situation, and sometimes he allows citizens to record from 3 feet away, he said. Other times, it’s 12 feet.
Some people, he said, often take “one step when you say ‘Step back.’ And then you say, ‘No, I said step back’ and then it’s ‘Well, how many feet?’ And it’s like, seriously? At that point, you are taking away from my ability to focus on what I am doing, just the fact that I even have to address it.
“And then, rather than backing up, it’s ‘Can you explain to me why?’ And they are recording the whole time. They are baiting you into an altercation, and that’s interfering and that’s criminal….”
Matt Lowen, the police department’s policy and accreditation manager, said the “reasonable distance” language is intended to provide flexibility to the situation at hand. Police cannot pinpoint the same exact distance that people must stand back in all situations, he said.
In a SWAT situation, for example, the perimeter is set with a greater distance for the public and the media, in the event that shots are fired or emergency vehicles need to move around, Lowen explained. The distance while recording a person resisting arrest on a sidewalk, however, is shorter but still may be several feet away.
“If I have just one person, resisting, fighting with me, I’m not going to make you be all the way down the block,” Lowen said. “But if you’re not standing back 5 or 10 feet, that’s not safe for me or for you or for the guy I’m arresting.”
Lowen said he doesn’t feel that officers mind being filmed so much as having to sometimes divide their attention between the person being arrested and the person recording the arrest.
The policy says Eugene officers “may not threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage or interfere with the recording of police activities.” But arrests are permitted of those deemed to be interfering with police, the policy adds.
“Those who are violating the restrictions should be clearly told such and given an opportunity to relocate,” the policy reads. However: “Nothing in this policy suggests an officer must warn a person participating in prohibited activity.”
EUGENE POLICE COMMISSION
When/where: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Kilcullen Room, Police Headquarters, 300 Country Club Road
What: Review of draft policy on citizens filming officers
More information: 541-682-5852