Police are increasingly being filmed by citizens


The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Drive though some Baltimore neighborhoods at night and it quickly becomes obvious: The blinking blue-light cameras show the police are watching.

But the police also are being watched.

Citizens armed with cameras — even in their cell phones — are filming officers in action, sometimes with unflattering results.

Officer Salvatore Rivieri found that out this week when a video of the 17-year veteran berating a skateboarder at the Inner Harbor was posted on the Internet site YouTube. The officer was suspended, pending an internal investigation.

Some police officers don't like the new reality that they can be under surveillance by the citizenry.

"I think that cops are terrified of video cameras," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "I think the end result is cops will police a little more carefully."

Baltimore police officers are supposed to behave exactly the same whether or not a video is running, said Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman. "Ideally, it would not mean anything," if a video camera were running, Clifford said.

But the spokesman noted that an increasing number of complaints forwarded to the department's Internal Investigation Division are accompanied by video clips. "It does mean that there is a lot stronger evidence, when there are complaints against officers," he said. "It can also mean there is exculpatory evidence."

Sterling said that the incident with Rivieri and the skateboarder has convinced the police commissioner that more training is necessary. The video shows Rivieri verbally abusing the young man and putting him in a headlock to force him to the ground.

In most cases it is perfectly legal to videotape police, and law enforcement experts say the practice is good for the community.

"I have seen videotapes of police officer saying, `You can't videotape me,'" said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It is absolutely 100 percent crystal-clear that any citizen has the right to videotape a police officer as they go about their business."

Rocah noted that around the country a number of police departments have installed dashboard cameras on patrol cars; he said the tapes can protect citizens and at times also shield officers from false accusations.

But officers do have some reasons to fear the lens. Recently retired Lt. Frederick V. Roussey said that in his 29 years on the force he used to encounter suspected gang members who would walk up to his officers and take pictures of them with their cell phones.

"If I had someone doing it, I would go over and grab the phone," he said. "It would be like, `No way.'" Roussey said he feared that gangs were compiling electronic hit lists of officers.

Clifford, the police spokesman, noted that citizens cannot interfere with undercover police work or use a camera to incite a crowd.

But homemade videos have embarrassed the department in the past. In November 2006, a group of young men, many with drug records, started using video cameras to keep tabs on officers in their West Baltimore neighborhood. One member of the group, Freddie Curry, captured a police officer arresting his uncle and pushing him to the ground.

In that case an arrest was made, but charges were later dropped after prosecutors viewed the videotape and saw discrepancies between what it showed and what was written in the police report.

In 1997, Officer Charles M. Smothers shot and killed James Quarles III outside Lexington Market.

A. Dwight Pettit, the attorney for the Quarles family, said the existence of a videotape taken by a bystander played a significant role in persuading city attorneys to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit for $500,000.

"We brought a big video in the courtroom on a big screen," Pettit said. He said he planned to show the tape as often as the judge would allow.

Smothers was dismissed from the department after investigators learned that he was improperly on duty while also on probation for a domestic-violence charge. Prosecutors did not charge him with a crime.

And, whether police are videotaping citizens, or vice versa, it is critical to keep context in mind. "The camera's perspective is always limited," Clifford said. "There is always the before and after you see on tape."

Copyright 2008 The Baltimore Sun
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