How to Responsibly Exercise Your Right to Record the Police

As US citizens we have the power to hold our government responsible for its actions. In this digital age it’s even easier to record and share information as it is happening. The power resides in our pocket and it is called a smartphone. As a result, citizens recording law enforcement incidents is now commonplace. It is another aspect of a “Technology Society” that all parties need to accept and assume is taking place all the time. But, when it comes to recording law enforcement officers on the beat, what is and is not acceptable? This blog will explore the rights and responsibilities of the common citizen.

Know Your Rights

In the United States of America it is a citizen’s constitutional right to take videos and photographs. You do not always have the right to record what people say, so be careful. Below are some rules to know before you take your smartphone out and hit the record button according to Pennsylvania Chapter of the ACLU.


  • You can take photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible in public spaces. This includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other officials carrying out their duties
  • When on private property, the owner sets the rules; if you disobey the owner they can order you off their property and have you arrested for trespassing
  • Law enforcement cannot order you to stop recording or taking pictures; however, officers can order you to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement activities (i.e., obstructing)
  • Law enforcement cannot order you to delete photographs or video recordings from your smartphone
  • Law enforcement cannot confiscate or demand to view photographs or video or search the contents of a phone without a warrant
  • Courts may approve the seizure of a camera if the police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that it contains evidence of a crime by someone other than the police themselves (see June 2014 US Supreme Court decision Riley v. California for more information regarding the search of a cell phone)

Voice Recording

Recording a conversation gets a little more involved in regard to the law. Citizens do have the right to capture audio recordings under these circumstances.

  • You can record law enforcement performing official duties in public
  • You can record people protesting or giving speeches in public
  • Federal “one-party consent” law permits recording telephone calls and in-person conversations with the consent of at least one of the parties; this law varies from state to state, so be sure to know the law for the state where the recording is taking place (Reference Outreach for a breakdown of which states are one-party consent vs. two-party consent.)

Best Practices When Recording

Mashable suggests safe and effective ways to use your smartphone when recording law enforcement incidents:

  • Do not interfere with law enforcement; let the scene unfold around you in order to document the incident only
  • You can and should be vocal about the recording, but refrain from muddling the recording with opinions, ideas or speculation
  • Make sure the shot is full and that you are capturing the entire scene and not just a limited viewpoint of the incident
  • Keep yourself in check; try to keep personal emotions out of the recording
  • When releasing the recording use discretion; depending on the content of the footage, use trigger warnings and disable auto-play before posting

Overall, be careful not to discredit your recording with personal reactions/commentary or subjugate the unknowing public to footage that is inflammatory or disturbing.

It’s Not Getting Worse, We are Getting Smarter

Basically anyone with a smartphone can record law enforcement incidents. There are some important things to remember to ensure that an accurate account is being captured and not a misrepresentation of the facts.

Founding member of WeCopwatch, Jacob Crawford (quoted in Mashable) said that the state of police hasn’t worsened since he started recording the police 16 years ago. He says it’s just that the broader public can now take notice with the evolution and growth of mass documentation.

Personally, I feel that the recording of law enforcement incidents has actually had a very positive effect on police behavior. In fact, due to these types of recordings we have actually seen a decline of reports against police officers for use of excessive force. That’s a step in the right direction.

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