New general order by D.C. police follows U.S. justice department guidelines for recording police activity

Emily Miller | Newsgathering | News | July 24, 2012

The Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union dropped a case Monday against the Metropolitan Police Department after the police chief signed a new general order reminding officers that “photography, including videotaping of places, buildings, structures and events are common and lawful activities" in the district.

The order, signed by Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier and effective on July 19, is consistent with guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Justice when it weighed in on a similar case in Baltimore, Md.

Under the order, officers are prohibited from ordering a person to stop recording, demanding a person identify him- or herself and state the reason for recording, detaining a person, intentionally blocking or obstructing cameras or recording devices, or discouraging a person from recording. An officer cannot confiscate a recording device without consent, and that consent must be given voluntarily. Moreover, under no circumstances may an officer erase or delete content, or require that a person erases or deletes images or sounds.

Metropolitan Police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump said in a statement that the department already had a policy in place that addressed interaction with the media, and that the new general order simply reaffirms the department's recognition of the First Amendment rights of the media and the public.

The six-page order was part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed against the police department by Jerome Vorus, who was detained by police in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., in June 2010 after using his camera to document a traffic stop.

“It’s a groundbreaking general order in terms of making it clear to police officers that they do not have privacy in public places when doing public duties,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU chapter in the district. “Our goal was to get exactly what we got: a well-written, clear order that basically says, ‘if someone is taking your picture, you should smile.’”

According to Spitzer, who represented Vorus, the order was the “main term of the settlement.” He added that his client also received a “satisfactory amount of money," but declined to disclose the exact amount.

Spitzer said he hopes “other police departments around the country see it as a model.”

The U.S. Justice Department submitted a letter to the Baltimore Police Department following a similar lawsuit filed by a citizen who was arrested for videotaping police activity in a public place.

In its letter, the justice department cites the Glik v. Cunniffe decision, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) ruled that the First Amendment protects the right to record police officers in the public performance of their duties.

The letter also offers points to be included in a department’s policy, most of which are addressed in the Metropolitan Police Department’s new general order.

For example, while officers are permitted to ask questions, “there is no justification for ordering a person to stop or requiring that they answer unless the [officer] reasonably suspects that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit any crime.” If a person who is recording is in a location that hinders officers’ safety or their ability to do their jobs, officers may ask that the person to move to a new location, but only without ordering the person to stop recording.

A person can comment on police activity while recording officers, but he or she cannot prevent officers from doing their jobs.

Spitzer said the order should be “very helpful” for both journalists and the public because it is publicly available and “you can carry one around with you” to present to officers if necessary.