Don't get too excited about a seemingly reasonable new policy on citizens photographing police officers. The city was forced to do it, and they're not happy about it.

Earlier this week Legal Times reported that D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department had issued a seemingly civil rights-minded policy clarification reminding its officers that they are not allowed to confiscate or interfere with cameras or other recording devices belonging to citizens who are photographing or videotaping them while they are working within public view. The General Order from D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, which DCist also posted in full, reads that "The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity."

Both the District of Columbia and the federal agencies located therein have a pretty terrible record of respecting the First Amendment rights of amateur photographers in Washington, D.C. (my former DCist colleague Heather Goss has done some terrific work on this topic), and there's of course a long history of police departments all over the country ordering people to stop taking photographs or video recordings despite very clear laws on this subject. So it wasn't super surprising to see technology news website Ars Technica pick up the story and append this glowing headline: "DC police chief announces shockingly reasonable cell camera policy." That praise quickly started to filter across the internet and spread to Twitter, as these things do.

In reality, as Ars writer Tim Lee later noted in an update to his original story, the MPD was actually forced to issue this order thanks to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Jerome Vorus sued the city last June, claiming he had been harassed by four MPD officers after taking pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown. As part of conditions related to a settlement in that case, Lanier agreed to issue the order.

There are good reasons to doubt that Lanier, a hugely popular chief who has presided over the biggest drop in violent crime in D.C.'s history, was happy about having to do this. This is the same chief, after all, who ordered all of her department's radio transmissions encrypted last year so that citizens armed with police radio smart phone apps could no longer listen in. It's hard to imagine her being thrilled to concede those same smart phone users are legally allowed to record images of her officers, and it did, after all, take a lawsuit to bring this policy clarification about in the first place.

So color me unsurprised that only about a week after the order went into effect, FOX5 reported that a D.C. man had his cell phone confiscated after he started snapping pictures of MPD officers when "he saw police punching a man they were arresting and another plain-clothes officer harassing the people watching." Sure, it sometimes takes a little time for the substance of general orders to filter down to the rank and file, but this is also an entrenched preference of an entire police department (and really, law enforcement agencies nearly everywhere). Lanier may have issued the order, but reasonableness when it comes to the rights of citizens to take photographs in public places is still a long way off.

Top image: rjs1322/Flickr

About the Author

Sommer Mathis
Sommer Mathis

Sommer Mathis is the former editor of CityLab.

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