On May 14, 24-year-old New York resident Michael Barber captured disturbing video footage of two plainclothes NYPD officers harassing a 14-year-old girl near the intersection of 140th St. and Hamilton Place in the Washington Heights section of Upper Manhattan. In response, Barber’s image was posted to the NYPD’s 30th Precinct Facebook page, which described Barber as “a complete idiot” before adding in a separate comment, “F**k these Savages They should all die a nice slow death!” In addition to stirring yet another wave of backlash against the Department, Barber’s footage of the incident has also prompted NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to call for members of the public to stop filming police officers. Our assault lawyers examine the legality of filming the police.
NYPD Recorded Grabbing, Harassing 14-Year-Old Girl
Barber is a member of Copwatch Patrol Unit (CPU), an activist group dedicated to “discourag[ing] and attempt[ing] to stop police brutality and harassment” by recording officers who use excessive force or otherwise violate civil rights. CPU’s Facebook page is currently covering the Barber incident and subsequent developments. The most recent post (dated May 21) states the following:
New Yorkers who film police are calling on the city council and state legislature to protect the rights of those who film police interactions by punishing cops who harass, intimidate and sometimes even arrest people who legally film them. Yesterday, NYPD commissioner Bratton railed against New Yorkers who film police by suggesting they interfere with police work.
The post is referring to Commissioner Bratton’s comments stating that individuals who film police interactions are, on some occasions, guilty of “agitating the situations” by the very act of filming.
Referring to another incident on April 27, in which footage captured an armed man standing near officers responding to an assault call in the Bronx, Commissioner Bratton lamented officer endangerment created by the social pressures of being recorded, stating, “There was a potential danger to the cops that was concealed because of everyone and their brother in their face with their cameras.” In that incident, Bratton says, the responding officers failed to detect a bystander’s concealed weapon — shown clearly on the footage — because they were preoccupied with being filmed.
Nonetheless, it would be difficult to contend the officers recorded by Michael Barber, just weeks after the Bronx incident, faced any danger from their victim: an unarmed 14-year-old girl.
What triggered the encounter is murky: Barber says the incident began when someone pressed a button on a police call box. Shortly afterward, two plainclothes officers arrived in an unmarked vehicle, emerging to stop a group of teenage girls. The officers initially singled out one of the girls, grabbing her wrist and pulling her toward their vehicle before repeating the process with a second girl, at which point Barber started filming.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is crazy,'” Barber recalled. “As soon as he jumped out of the car he grabbed her. He just had his hands on her.”
The girl can be heard protesting, “I did not do nothing and you came and touched me,” and repeatedly asking the officers to stop touching her as a crowd gathers.
Fortunately, one unidentified woman eventually intervened in the girl’s defense, telling the officers, “You know you’re doing wrong. Go home!” The woman can also be heard asking for the officers’ names, which they refused to disclose.
One of the officers eventually pulls his partner away from the fray. As they return to their vehicle and leave the scene, one officer can be heard shouting angrily at the woman who disrupted the altercation. Did the officers intend to allege disorderly conduct? Drug possession? The motive for the aggressive actions taken during the stop remain unknown.
Is it Legal to Film Police Officers?
“The cameras are everywhere,” said Commissioner Bratton, “but when they start literally getting in your face, interrupting arrests, it starts to become problematic.”
While this troubling incident happened to involve the NYPD, police brutality is by no means restricted to New York City. On the contrary, Barber’s footage — and Commissioner Bratton’s public response — brings up an important question for people throughout the United States: is it legal to film the police?
Under the First Amendment, you have a protected Constitutional right to film (and photograph) people, places, and things which are in public view — including police officers. Multiple court rulings have upheld this right.
For example, in 2014 the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiff Carla Gericke, who was arrested in 2010 after filming New Hampshire’s Weare Police Department pulling over her friend in a nighttime traffic stop, “was exercising a clearly established First Amendment right when she attempted to film the traffic stop in the absence of a police order to stop filming or leave the area.”
Moreover, the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a similar ruling several years earlier in 2011, ruling that “a citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment” in the case of Boston-based attorney Simon Glik. Glik was arrested by the Boston Police Department in 2007 after filming another in-progress arrest because he was concerned the officers were using excessive force.
While the right to film police is protected by law, unfortunately it is not uncommon for officers to demand that civilians stop recording — even when they are acting well within the scope of their First Amendment rights. Filming is generally permissible so long as the person recording the footage does not interfere with an arrest or violate any laws in the process.
If you were injured by an NYPD officer using excessive force, or if your Constitutional rights were violated by the police, you deserve to have the matter reviewed by an experienced attorney. To talk more about your legal rights in a free and completely confidential case evaluation, call the New York City criminal defense lawyers of Sullivan & Galleshaw right away at (800) 730-0135.