What should I do if I witness police misconduct?
You are walking down the street and you see what appears to be police abuse or brutality. What should you do? Civil rights are human rights. If we do not stand up for our civil rights and those of our fellow citizens, we have no rights.
Connecticut State law Protects Bystanders Taking Video of the Police
Taking photographs and video of police officers in Connecticut is completely legal, so long as you avoid interfering with law enforcement officers discharging their official duties.
A 2015 state law enacted in response to New Haven police overreacting outside downtown bars, codifies the rights of bystanders, who may also file civil lawsuits to seek damages from municipalities in cases of police detaining or arresting witnesses. The law, part of a legislative package mandating the use of body cameras, also protects witnesses of police actions.
“An employer of a peace officer who interferes with any person taking a photographic or digital still or video image of such peace officer or another peace officer acting in the performance of such peace officer’s duties shall be liable to such person in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress,” says the law.
Observe & Record from a Safe Distance
Stand at a safe distance and, if possible, use your phone to record video of what is happening. As long as you do not interfere with what the officers are doing and do not stand close enough to obstruct their movements, you have the right to observe and record events that are plainly visible in public spaces.
Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and government officials carrying out their duties. You should not fear photographing or video-recording police officers in public places while they are on-duty.
Don’t make the situation worse
There is no reason to verbally engage with the police officers or anyone else. Don’t say anything to make the situation worse or drawn any more attention to yourself than necessary. Police officers may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. In general, a court will trust a police officer’s judgment about what is “interfering” more than yours. So if a police officer orders you to stand back, do so. You aren’t going to win that debate on the roadside so follow police instructions.
Don’t Hide, Stand Proud
Do not try to hide the fact that you are recording. Police officers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when performing their jobs, but the people they are interacting with may have privacy rights that would require you to notify them of the recording.
Exercise Common Sense
If an officer orders you to stop recording or orders you to hand over your phone, you should politely but firmly tell the officer that you do not consent to doing so, and remind the officer that taking photographs or video is your right under the First Amendment.
Be aware that some officers may arrest you for refusing to comply even though their orders are illegal. The arrest would be unlawful, but you will need to weigh the personal risks of arrest against the value of continuing to record.
You should also consider disabling biometric access to your phone such as fingerprint ID or FaceID. A police officer cannot force you to open your phone and cannot force you to delete photos or videos. Don’t make it easy – keep your phone locked with a strong password.
BE a Good Witness
Whether or not you are able to record everything, make sure to write down everything you remember, including officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, how many officers were present and what their names were, any use of weapons (including weapons such as Tasers or batons), and any injuries suffered by the person stopped.
If you are able to speak to the person stopped by police after the police leave, they may find your contact information helpful in case they decide to file a complaint or pursue a lawsuit against the officers. In any case, respect police authority, even if you think their conduct is wrong or illegal and above all, don’t interfere.
If you have a question about police misconduct, First Amendment rights or any other legal issue, feel free to call Attorney John Radshaw in New Haven today at (203) 654-9695. For more information about Attorney Radshaw and his practice, visit www.jjr-esq.com.