The California Assembly has just passed a law authorizing civilians to film police in public while police are arresting someone or otherwise working. The bill (SB 411) heads to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk where he is expected to sign it.
While there was no law prohibiting videotaping of police arresting people, the California legislature wanted to make sure it was clear that videotaping of police in a public place is legal and that the police cannot stop a person from recording an arrest or other police action.
This law no doubt arose out of recent video tapings of police not only engaging in misconduct but in at least one situation a South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder for shooting a man in the back who posed no threat to him. In that case Officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott eight times in the back. Prior to the video surfacing, Officer Slager claimed that Mr. Scott reached for his stun gun, but the video recorded by a random passerby, showed Mr. Scott never engaged in any violent conduct with the officer and was running from the officer when he was killed.
In a more ambiguous case Eric Garner was selling cigarettes on the street in New York without authorization; when he resisted arrest several police officers tried to wrestle him down which included putting him in a choke hold. Unbeknownst to the police, Mr. Garner suffered from a breathing condition that was exacerbated by the scuffle and he died.
To add to the disturbing nature of these events in each case the victims were African American and the police for the most part, are all white. A slew of other incidents have occurred across the nation. Without video tape it is unlikely the public would have ever learned the disturbing manner in which these individuals died.
Notably, it is not only minorities who have been the subject of police misconduct as illustrated by the Kelly Thomas case in Orange County, California. There, several videos made by passing civilians showed police repeatedly striking Mr. Thomas, a mentally ill white man, in the head with metal flashlights while he was pinned to the ground. He died of his injuries. While the police involved were charged, a botched prosecution led to their acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges.
Society has an interest in holding police accountable and the images shown on videotape can be hard to refute. Many people were unaware of the frequency and nature of police misconduct until these videos began to surface. These videos will cause police to act more professionally and have also led many people to take more seriously future claims of police misconduct when there is no video present.