How to Responsibly Exercise Your Right to Record the Police

US citizens have the power to hold our government responsible for its actions. In this digital age, it’s easier than ever to record and share information as it is happening. However, when it comes to recording law enforcement officers, what is and is not acceptable?

 Know Your Rights

According to the ACLU Pennsylvania, here is a summary of your rights.

Video and Photography

  • You can take photographs and videos of plainly visible things 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 truly interfere with legitimate law enforcement activities.
  •  The police 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.

Voice Recording

  • Recording a conversation gets a little more involved regarding 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 law requires the consent of at least one party before recording in-person, telephone, or electronic conversations. It establishes the minimum consent requirements across the country, though states may impose stricter rules.

Best Practices When Recording the Police

Here are 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 to document the incident only.
  • You can and should be vocal about the recording, but refrain from interfering with it with opinions, ideas, or speculation.
  • Ensure the shot is complete and you capture the entire scene, not just a limited viewpoint of the incident.
  • Keep yourself in check; try to keep personal emotions from the recording.
  • When releasing the recording, use discretion; depending on the content of the footage, use trigger warnings and turn off autoplay before posting.

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

Trends and Statistics

As of 2024, 85% of police departments in the United States are equipped with body cameras, up from 65% in 2020.

According to a 2023 Pew Research Center study, 79% of Americans believe recording police interactions can improve police accountability.

Studies from 2023 indicate that the use of police body cameras and the prevalence of civilian recordings have contributed to a 15% decrease in reported incidents of police use of force.

Several states have updated their laws to better protect citizens’ rights to record law enforcement. For example, Colorado and California have enacted laws making it easier to record police activities in public spaces.

Platforms like TikTok and Instagram have seen a significant rise in posts related to police accountability, with hashtags like #PoliceAccountability and #CopWatch gaining millions of views in 2023 and 2024.

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