Police Video Cameras: A Source of “Permanent Embarrassment”?


The ubiquity of video in police encounters — sometimes promptly uploaded onto YouTube — is creating new frontiers for judges and legislators who must sort out the issues raised by new technologies, says the New York Times. Courts in several states are considering cases where citizens who videotaped the police have been charged with violating wiretapping or eavesdropping statutes, prosecutions civil rights lawyers say violates First Amendment rights. If body cameras are widely adopted by police departments, privacy questions are likely to be added to the legal stew.

“If a police officer is taking a picture of every interaction, one of the things that he may find is me, naked as a jaybird, when my wife calls to complain,” said law Prof. Franklin Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley. “Let's assume that it's either against the law or not, but I sure don't want it on YouTube. The potential for a sort of permanent embarrassment is a looming presence when everything is filmed.” Police officers argue that their pager-size devices, more versatile and less costly than dashboard cameras, can provide objective evidence in situations that might otherwise depend on “he said, she said” accounts. Howard Wasserman, a First Amendment scholar at Florida International University's law school, says video recordings are not free from subjective interpretation. “Film and literary theory show that it is a myth that video evidence is an unambiguous, objective, conclusive, singular and clear reproduction of reality,” says Wasserman.

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