On January 31, officers from the Miami-Dade and City of Miami Police Departments donned riot gear and headed to Government Center, in the heart of downtown Miami, to evict the Occupy protesters who had been camping there for three months. Carlos Miller, a local blogger, was there to film it—but he ended up becoming part of the story.
Miller filmed the eviction without incident, and continued shooting even after most of the protestors had left. About four minutes into this piece of footage, Miami-Dade Public Information Officer Nancy Perez stops Miller as he goes to walk by her. In the video, you can hear Miller say, “I want to go to my car,” and Perez say, “Oh, no, you see, it doesn’t work that way,” before calling for other officers.
“Am I getting arrested?” Miller asks. “You got it,” says Perez. Other officers come into the frame and his camera films the ground as he is restrained. As Perez says, “We don’t want to have to hurt you,” another photographer starts recording the scene. Miller’s footage goes black less then 60 seconds later.
Charged with resisting arrest, he was held in jail until noon the following day, he says, and then directed to a neighboring precinct to pick up his over $10,000 of camera equipment. When he got home, he realized that his last five minutes of footage, the part that contained his arrest, was missing. “I didn’t want to come out and accuse them [of deleting the footage],” says Miller. “But I could have sworn I was recording when I was arrested.” He retrieved the video using recovery software called PhotoRec, and promptly posted it to his blog, Photography is Not a Crime.
For the past five years, Miller, a former newspaper reporter, has covered incidents and issues surrounding the public’s right to record the police. Miller’s blog, which he refers to as PINAC, began as a hobby, but became a full-time job. On it, he chronicles his own court cases (he’s had three), other photographer arrests, and related legislation from around the country. He advocates knowing the law and using that knowledge to stand up to law enforcement in what he often refers to, in a sarcastic nod to government terminology, as “The War on Photography.”
There is a lot to write about. People across the country are being threatened with arrest and sometimes taken into custody for recording police officers in public, in settings ranging from protests to traffic stops. Sometimes, people allege that their cameras were confiscated and files deleted. Since filming in a public place is legal, people face other kinds of charges while filming cops—disorderly conduct, obstruction of governmental administration, trespassing.
If convicted, Miller faces a one-year sentence, but he’s confident that his footage of the arrest will get him acquitted. “The momentum is swinging in the direction of the citizen,” he says. “Cops walk around with cameras clipped on their uniforms, because people blame cops for excessive violence and it turns out they’re lying. Cops use cameras to protect themselves, and now citizens are too.”
The rest of 2012 will bring plenty of opportunities for confrontations between police officers and camera-wielding citizens. This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago, for example, is expected to draw activists from all over. Adrenaline-driven photographic conflicts are going to continue to play out across the country, and that’s why it’s important for all parties involved to know their rights and their restrictions.
“We have to respect each other, because the way things are moving, what you do will get posted on the Internet,” says Miller. “The days of screwing up in public and hoping no one finds out about it are over.”
With camera-equipped smartphones ubiquitous, police and other officials are under more scrutiny than ever. Citizens have uploaded videos that have been seen by millions: the pepper-spray cop at UC Davis; Patrick Pogan, the NYPD rookie who knocked a cyclist off his bike with no provocation; Anthony Bologna, the NYPD inspector who pepper sprayed female protestors in the face. Videos like these often result in bad publicity for the department and recriminations for the police officers caught on camera. Maybe this is why some cops try so hard to stop filming before it starts.
Increasingly, these policies and actions are facing harsh judicial criticism. This April, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that the state’s wiretapping law, under which citizens may face up to 15 years in jail for filming an on-duty police officer without consent, “likely violates the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-press guarantees,” making it much more difficult to prosecute offenders.