Walking down a Seattle street, you encounter a confrontation between a police officer and a civilian, and you see something that worries you. So you pull out your smartphone, and open the video app. Are you allowed to record? The answer is “yes,” and now there’s a law that says so, the Seattle Times reports. The City Council voted yesterday to enshrine in the municipal code the rights of the public to observe, record and criticize police activity without fear of retaliation. The only exceptions are when an observer hinders, delays or compromises legitimate police activity, threatens someone’s safety or attempts to incite other people to violence.
The First Amendment can offer protections to members of the public when they watch and record police. A 2008 police department policy says bystanders may remain nearby and record incidents as long as they don’t interfere. “People don’t know what’s in the police-policy manual,” said Council member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the ordinance. “And the manual governs the actions of officers. It doesn’t tell people what their rights are.” The measure says officers should assume members of the public are observing and possibly recording their work at all times. “The value of video and audio recordings by the public is keenly evident from the recordings in 2016 of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge … and law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” the ordinance says. Across the U.S., smartphones are helping people hold their police departments accountable. But people watching, recording and criticizing officers have sometimes been arrested.