Less than two weeks after three people were arrested for filming Arlington police officers conducting a traffic stop, the Dallas Police Department announced Wednesday it will offer a class for law enforcement officers on people's rights to film them in public spaces. Also, the department, along with national journalism organizations, will host an event for the public on Oct. 16.
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled on citizens' rights to film the police, but many lower courts have, and overwhelmingly they've concluded the act is protected under the First Amendment. All First Amendment rights are subject to reasonable place, time and manner restrictions, but as long as someone recording doesn't interfere with an officer conducting her or his duty, their act is protected.
Though an Arlington Police Department spokesman told the Morning News the cop-watchers were arrested for interfering with police duty, he declined to say what exactly they did. The cop-watchers say they haven't changed how they approach filming traffic stops since they started several months ago.
Major Max Geron, the Dallas Police Department's spokesman, wrote in an email that the department was aware of the group in Arlington. Over Twitter, Geron invited the Arlington Police Department to attend the class.
— Maj. Max Geron (@MaxDPD) September 17, 2014
Arlington hasn't returned several request for comment, but Dallas law enforcement officials have done their best to let people know they're OK with people filming Dallas officers. "The Dallas Police Department respects the rights of individuals to photograph and record in public spaces," Geron wrote in the email, "and simply asks that they do safely."
There are rules of engagement when dealing with officers, said Avi Adelman, the former Lower Greenville neighborhood activist who films crime scenes and some fires. "Do not become a part of the scene," he said. If there's no yellow tape to mark off the crime scene, Adelman said he asks an officer politely where the line is. "If I can hear [officers] talking," he said, "I'm too close."
Filming the police from the sidewalk falls under the same principle as surveillance cameras and body-worn cameras, said Mickey Osterreicher, the lawyer for the National Press Photographers Association who will teach the class, because people have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public.
Osterreicher also said there is no distance requirement for filming the police. Officers want people at a distance so they don't make a go for their guns, he said. Based on the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions to the First Amendment, he said, a good distance for filming is whatever a reasonable person considers a good distance.
Though some might think police officers get stressed when they're filmed, Ron Pinkston, the president of the largest police union in Dallas, said officers only get stressed when those filming make themselves involved in a scene, such as when they shout. Not only is shouting "pretty stupid and pretty childish," Pinkston said, it distracts the officer from providing the best "customer service."
He added that officers should act like they're being filmed all the time. "If you're not doing anything wrong," Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a recent town hall meeting, "you shouldn't have a problem with it."
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