Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Shining Light on Cops

Massachusetts cops don't seem to be the brightest and best socialized citizens. For one, they don't have a sense of limits, they don't know when to stop.

Coming up on three years ago, I touched on this in a call for real civilian review boards in Boston and also in this one. There have also been numerous cases in which cops seem to get away with egregious misbehavior, even involving death.

In such one-on-one cases, the police unions invariably and maybe understandably rally to their member's defense — regardless of the evidence.

Now they are overreaching yet again. This time, it is a systemic issue and they are bound to lose. They'll end up helping citizens and letting the courts and legislature slap down their abuse of law and liberty.

Here they have pitted their outrageous claims against First Amendment rights of citizens. Not only would they spit on Massachusetts law, but want to kick around the U.S. Constitution. Bad ploy.

The issue is the total misapplication of the commonwealth wiretapping law, Chapter 272, Section 99. The police have pulled this trick before and have come back again. Yesterday's Boston Globe has a long article citing several cases and how dishonest and dishonorable the cops here have been about it. The Citizen's Media Law Project is among the watchdogs on this case too.

The gist is that this is one of a dozen states with laws designed to protect plain old citizens, not misbehaving cops. In a lot of words, it includes requirements that people can't wiretap or videotape each other (even with cellphones) without the other side knowing what's up.

The cops want the courts to construe this to mean that the worst of them can slap around kids on the street or worse, with no fear of people recording their actions and victims using that as proof in pressing charges. Outrageous.

There are lots of good cops, but the worst of them have to be retrained, booted or otherwise punished. When they are in public, they should expect that anything they do or say might end up as a public record, bumping up into a DA's office and as evidence in court as appropriate.

As many note, cops in patrol cars often have dash cameras recording images and sound. They use these for their own protection. However, even here, some of the more arrogant and less bright officers still abuse citizens with the cameras digitizing it all. Our local cops want courts to rule that citizens don't have the similar First Amendment rights to record what is happening in plain sight.

It's good that both the Boston Police hierarchy and the patrolman's union pretend that using a cell phone at a distance to record police misconduct is interfering with an arrest. This should inspire the courts and legislature to refine 272/99. Meanwhile, they have won and lost wrongful arrest charges on their intentional misapplication of this law.

Let the General Court step up and step in. Bad cops should not get a free pass. The police unions should never be allowed to transform a law protecting civilian privacy to hide members from consequences of their actions.

There is the old truism that character is what you are in the dark. In this cellphone era, there's a lot more light around that those without character would like.

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Daniel said...

Right now the law in question only refers to audio recording- so in the meantime, pending revision of the statute, make sure if and when you record police activity to disable the audio function (if possible). That way the police can't seize your phone/ camera.
One question: would changing the law also mean that we can now record one another without consent? Or would the monitoring of police be specifically exempted?

massmarrier said...

The police already misuse this law by claiming that they need to provide specific permission to record their public acts, not just open exposure of the recording device. Tiny tweaks to the law could make it very plain that's not the case. Moreover, it can be explicitly stated in revisions that public employees in public places doing pubic duties can be recorded except for the rare circumstances, such as a courtroom where a judge prohibits it.