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Police practices are under fire as more and more recordings of excessive force and racist behavior surface. Some police departments have responded by trying to work with communities to regain trust lost, while others try to silence whistle blowers.
The availability of smartphones and cameras has empowered citizens to become guerrilla journalists who feel protected by the First Amendment. However, many have been shocked to discover revealing police misconduct may result in being targeted and harassed by law enforcement.
Filmmakers David Felix Sutcliffe and Laura Poitras have asked the documentary community to show their solidarity for civilian journalists by signing a petition. So far, the petition has at least 306 names, including multiple Academy Award-winning and nominated documentarians.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has endorsed their petition, saying in a statement, “Arrests of grassroots journalists who record police activities implicate not only the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but also the very legitimacy of our legal system, which grounds its claim to power in impartiality. Yet, around the country, the law has subjected to penalties people pursuing constitutionally protected activities that enhance transparency, while turning a blind eye to the violence prompting residents to place themselves at risk.”
The petition asks the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the arrests of civilian journalists who film police actions. This shouldn’t be a difficult request, because the DOJ has acknowledged it as a problem in prior investigations.
In the DOJ’s 2015 report on the Ferguson Police Department (FPD), they wrote, “FPD officers also routinely infringe on the public’s First Amendment rights by preventing people from recording their activities,” and “the federal courts of appeal have held that the First Amendment ‘unambiguously’ establishes a constitutional right to videotape police activities.”
Despite this, citizens who record police often find themselves in the crosshairs. For example, the day after Chris LeDay filmed the death of Alton Sterling, he was detained after police told him that he “fit the description” of someone wanted on battery charges. He would end up spending the night in jail for unpaid fines, Complex reported.