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How Do Cell Phone Videos Affect Community Policing?18:55
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A resident records the scene around Norfolk Street in Cambridge, April 19, 2013 as authorities search for Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A resident records the scene around Norfolk Street in Cambridge, April 19, 2013 as authorities search for Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

It was just over one year ago that a cell phone video showed Michael Brown's body to the world, uncovered on a street in Ferguson, Missouri for hours.

In April, another cell phone video showed Baltimore police officers shackling Freddie Gray before putting him in the back of a police van where he later died.

And in South Carolina, yet another video caught a police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back as he ran away.

Those cell phone videos have had an enormous impact on the relationship between citizens and law enforcement. And it's in that light that Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans told the Boston Herald that he's “very much aware that everyone has eyes and ears on us all the time." He then told the Herald he'd support some regulation on the public recording of law enforcement officers.

"If we can get legislation — to make it fair — that protects both sides, I'm all for it," said Evans. "Should you be up in a police officer's face and agitating them? Absolutely not. Would I love to see, yeah, a little distance? I'd love to see that."

Note: Commissioner Evans declined our request for an interview, but a BPD spokesman confirmed Evans' support for legislation that would dictate minimum spaces between police and citizens taking cell phone videos. No such regulation is pending in Massachusetts, but at least 10 other states have proposed such laws this year.

Interview Highlights:

On supporting legislation that would dictate minimum spaces between police and citizens taking videos

William Brooks: "I'd have to see exactly what it says. ... Thanks for pointing out on the show that I'm not speaking for the police commissioner. There are instances where people do get too close to the police, to the point where they're interfering. And it's not the fact that they're recording, it's the fact that they've gotten so close. I think what you're seeing — you don't see a lot of it now, but you're seeing some of it, where people get so close where they do interfere."

"There are instances where people do get too close to the police, to the point where they’re interfering. And it’s not the fact that they’re recording, it’s the fact that they’ve gotten so close."

William Brooks

"I have not discussed this with the commissioner, but what he may be talking about is setting some white line rules — you know that outside a certain radius, within that radius it becomes an issue. We've seen just a few videos on YouTube where you could see within the frame being shot, people kind of gathering around to the point of holding their phones over the shoulders of officers who are struggling with a suspect. You know, that is a problem. And quite frankly, those people are probably subject to a sanction anyway whether they're disorderly or whatever ... it could be that the commissioner is just looking to set some boundaries."

Carl Williams: "Citizens and non-citizens have that right. It's a First Amendment right, it's freedom of expression, it's freedom of speech: to be able to be your own media, to say I want to monitor what my government does. And as the chief said, there are already laws, this would be another law, to actually limit citizens and non-citizens behavior. ... What the commissioner is saying now is we need to limit more, not what the police could do, but what citizens and non-citizens can do in relation to the police. ... One, there might be some constitutional problems with that, and two, is that the direction we want to go."

WB: "This sounds to me like the commissioner framed that by saying actually it would be good if there are rules for both sides. ... I think he took the opportunity to make the point that people can interject themselves too close when an arrest is being made. ... Sometimes when an officer is trying to arrest someone who is resisting, that's a very difficult spot for everybody. And the last thing you need is somebody trying to straddle your legs as you're on the ground with somebody trying to get the best cellphone shot, maybe in some cases agitating the person you're trying to take into custody."

"When you say that it's perfectly legal — and it is — but you should keep in mind that this is a real shift that's occurred in a very short amount of time. ... Between things that have evolved in the country and the evolution of technology where people essentially carry video cameras in their pockets — virtually everyone has them now on their phones. Actually, I think the police have adapted to it fairly well. We understand now that really in 99 percent of the circumstances where we find ourselves, it's completely lawful for somebody to video tape us."

"What we want is a democratic society. And part of that is to watch what our legislature does, part of that is to watch what our police do, what our mayor does."

Carl Williams

CW: "There's only one side here — it's the people of the United States, and the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the people of our towns. And that's everyone. That's the police, that's everyone else. And what we want is a democratic society. And part of that is to watch what our legislature does, part of that is to watch what our police do, what our mayor does."

"People back in the day said you didn't really have free speech unless you had a press. Right now people have Twitter, people have Facebook, people have YouTube and people have cameras in their pockets and that's a good thing. And I'm sure all the officers under [the chief], those men and women are doing a great job, and it's good to know that, and we've seen videos like this where officers go out and do something — buy a pair of shoes or do something great in the line of duty. And that's wonderful and that is out there. Sometimes, people do very bad things. Very bad things. And it's very difficult for citizens and non-citizens to say, 'Well, this officer beat someone, this officer killed someone.' We saw that in some of the situations you mention in the beginning — where the officer's account of it is very different until the video came out."

Guests

Carl Williams, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, which tweets @ACLU_Mass.

William Brooks, Norwood police chief and the second vice president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. Norwood Police tweets @NorwoodPolice.

More

Boston Herald: Boston Police Commissioner Wants Law To Push Back On Camera-Toting Cop Watchers

  • “If we can get legislation that protects both sides, I’m all for it,” Evans told the Herald late last week. “Should you be up in a police officer’s face and agitating them? Absolutely not. Because we’ve seen it through all these demonstrations. It interferes sometimes with us (being) able to look at the crowd and focus on what our mission is.”

United States Court of Appeals: Glik v. Cunniffe

  • "The First Amendment issue here is, as the parties frame it, fairly narrow: is there a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public? Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative. "

This segment aired on August 10, 2015.

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