The right of a citizen to record police activities is largely protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The Seattle Police Department in 2008 adopted a policy meant to protect that right.
But now, Seattle City Council members are considering going one step further to reinforce the rights of the public to observe and record police by adding a proposed ordinance to the Seattle Municipal Code.
The ordinance, if adopted, would give people who believe their police-observation rights have been violated the ability to claim damages from the city.
City Councilwoman Lisa Herbold sites shooting fatalities, by police and of police, as proof that public observation rights are important.
“Across the country, recordings of police activity by the public have increased the public's ability to witness police behavior and hold police accountable,”according to a memo regarding the Seattle Citizen Observer Bill of Rights. “However, the act of recording, observing, or verbally criticizing police has also at times led to arrests and legal challenges to those arrests on First Amendment grounds.”
Several states, including California, Oregon, and Colorado, have passed laws explicitly recognizing the rights of the public to observe and record the police.
American Civil Liberties Union state affiliates in New Mexico and California even allow residents to download an app so users can easily record and upload footage before police can confiscate smartphones.
Advocates say the phenomenon is not just about technology, but also people wanting to provide independent versions of deadly police encounters outside of official statements and body-camera footage. With millions of cellphones sold, every person now has the ability to be a police monitor.
The Seattle Police Department was aware of the potential for cellphone videos and added a policy to their police manual in 2008 that reads, in part, “It is the policy of the Seattle Police Department that people not involved in an incident may be allowed to remain in proximity of any stop, detention or arrest, or any other incident occurring in public so long as their presence is lawful and their activities, including verbal comments, do not obstruct, hinder, delay, or threaten the safety or compromise the outcome of legitimate police actions and/or rescue efforts. Officers should assume that a member of the general public is observing, and possibly recording, their activities at all times.”
The proposed city council ordinance differs from the police department policy in that the ordinance will “identify prohibited actions by officers — such as arresting or using force against lawful observers, rather than simply requiring officers to recognize and obey the rights of lawful observers.”
The ordinance would allow bystanders to submit claims to the police department's chief for the cost of any damaged property, plus $500 for the value of a damaged or destroyed recording. It also would give people the ability to sue under city law for punitive damages of up to $10,000.
No matter the crime or the circumstances, every defendant has a right to representation by a qualified attorney. If you have been arrested and face criminal charges, or if you have been falsely convicted, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.