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The following article is a culmination of information generated by our research team at Primeau Forensics on how to record police officers. Our goal is to answer the question, ‘Do citizens have a right to video record police officers?’ To best answer this question, Primeau Forensics’ staff surveyed police officers, law enforcement leadership, concerned citizens, and attorneys to present their answers about video recording. What is more, concerned citizens can actually assist police officers when using proper video recording methods. Always remember, everyone’s safety is a top priority.
The specific details expressed in this post are based primarily on Michigan law. However, the information we have gathered and presented in this article is universal. If you are reading outside the United States of America, consider laws enforced in your community or jurisdiction.
IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, FILM SOMETHING
The Department of Homeland Security has a saying; ‘If you see something say something.’ Our philosophy is, ‘If you see something, film something.’
A concerned citizen can take photos and video record police officers in public places. However, they cannot video record in a manner in which they interfere with the event or investigation. This includes video recording too close within the officer’s tactical operating area. Again, safety is a priority. Interference to an investigation diverts the police officers’ attention and reduces their focus. In other words, does the police officer consider that you are interfering with the investigation at that time? If an officer warns you during a video recording, adjust your approach, where you’re standing, and what you’re filming.
Be aware that an officer may have a tremendous amount on his or her mind. As a result, they may be in a heightened sense of awareness from this critical incident or a previous incident to the one you are currently video recording. Keep this in mind when you are video recording police officers.
YOUR RIGHT TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS
If you are a video recording witness, write down your name and number for the police officer and mention you saw what happened. That way they will contact you later if you can assist with the investigation. If the police officer is unavailable or too busy at the time, you can supply this information to their shift supervisor.
On the other hand, you have a right to remain anonymous and video record police officers. There are some witnesses whose employment may require that they present the recordings, statements, or anything heard to assist a police officer. These include nurses, social workers, security officers, paramedics, and first responders. Whether you record an event or are an eye witness to one, you could be subpoenaed and ordered to go to court. If you are a witness, you may be asked to give a statement, and/or appear in court.
THE IMPORTANCE OF REMAINING UNBIASED
In order to protect the integrity of all parties involved, as well as the investigation, it is crucial to remain unbiased while video recording police officers. To remain an unbiased witness, record the entire event. We find that some witnesses focus on the police officer only. Pointing the camera directly at the officer introduces bias and makes the video recording difficult to view in its entirety.
Record the entire interaction of all parties. Don’t find offense in the police officer telling you to back up or to move away. Another article that may help in understanding how best to prepare digital evidence can be found on the blog.
CONTACT FORENSIC EXPERTS
The guidelines for how to video record police officers safely are based primarily on Michigan case law. For more information, visit the Michigan legislature website. Finally, contact the Primeau Forensic’s team for more information or questions on your legal right to record police officers.
Following our discussion on the legality of recording law enforcement, we want to share several techniques for video recording police officers safely and respectfully. Because these encounters often involve smartphone video recordings, the following methodology focuses on that medium. Follow along for deeper insight into this topic.
THE RISE OF THE SMARTPHONE
Statistics show that 77% of Americans use a smartphone. Couple that with the vast amount of apps on the market that make recording and sharing videos so simple, it’s no surprise that an average of 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
What does that have to do with video recording police officers and video forensics? Because the ease of recording videos has become so prevalent in our society, more and more citizens are capturing both criminal activity and law enforcement interactions with their smartphones.
These videos become an integral part of the investigation. There are forensic enhancement limitations for poor video quality. Our goal is to provide you with the necessary solutions to common problems and help you acquire the best recording possible.
5 TECHNIQUES FOR RECORDING POLICE
PROBLEM #1: UNSTABLE FOOTAGE
Try to stay calm and focus on keeping the camera steady. Don’t zoom in too much on the subject to where your camera is unable to properly autofocus. Also, be sure to keep a safe distance. Should the video need additional zooming, it can be forensically enhanced.
PROBLEM #2: LANDSCAPE VS PORTRAIT
Always film in landscape mode. Landscape mode offers a wider view and provides investigators with valuable information, such as point of entry, outside factors, and other surroundings. Additionally, filming in landscape mode provides a clearer image for forensic experts.
PROBLEM #3: CITIZEN ESCALATES SITUATION
If you feel like you are too close to the situation, step back. Safety for you and everyone else is most important. Also, don’t feel the need to use any equipment more than your smartphone. As technology advances, smartphone cameras are advancing with it. Most smartphones use a 1080p resolution, which is sufficient for forensic enhancement.
PROBLEM #4: VIDEO IS EDITED OR UPLOADED BEFORE HANDED OFF TO AUTHORITIES
Don’t alter the video in anyway. Alteration includes shortening the video, using apps or software to enhance the video or audio, or adding effects. All of these adjustments affect the chain of custody and the forensic expert’s ability to identify or authenticate the video. Chain of custody refers to the order in which a piece of criminal evidence should be handled by persons investigating a case, specifically the unbroken trail of accountability ensuring the physical security of samples, data, and records in a criminal investigation.
We have all seen viral videos on social media or news outlets of criminal activity or law enforcement interactions. However, it is imperative that the investigation be complete before a video is made public. Posting the video online could give suspects important details that could hinder the investigation and put lives at risk. It is important to remember that what you film could affect people’s lives.
PROBLEM #5: VIDEO IS BIASED AND FOCUSES ENTIRELY ON ONE SUBJECT
While you may be emotionally invested in the situation, it is crucial that the video evidence be unbiased. In order for the investigation to be as accurate as possible, investigators need to see the event in its entirety. Additionally, it is a good idea to begin filming as soon as you see a problem arising and continue filming until the interaction is finalized. Another good idea is to use multiple cameras when available. Not only does this provide multiple viewpoints, but also multiple versions of the recording for the best possible outcome.
BE MINDFUL AND RESPECTFUL
If you are filming an interaction with law enforcement, be mindful and respectful of the officer’s tactical operating area. Take the appropriate measures to speak directly with an officer’s supervisor if concerned with their actions. And if the officer asks you to back up, they do it for your safety. It is always best to work with the officer and not against them.
Also, keep in mind that the officer may be in a heightened state of emotion from a previous incident. As Barrack Obama, once said, “Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”
CONTACT FORENSIC EXPERTS
The guidelines for how to video record police officers safely are based primarily on Michigan case law. For more information, visit the Michigan legislature website. Contact the Primeau Forensic’s team for more information or questions on the techniques for recording police officers discussed here.
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