Sunday, December 04, 2011

Public Recordings, Recorders, and Records

All censorship exists to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. 

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. 

Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.  
                                                                           - George Bernard Shaw

Over the last 25 years, incidents of local, national, and international significance have been made more so by the increasing availability of portable recording devices.

Whether as part of a mobile phone or other platform, when combined with Internet access and ubiquitous social media networks these compact devices collect and disseminate information in a manner that has literally changed the way the world is perceived and governed.

Most recently, the so-called 'Arab Spring' and the Occupy Wall Street protest and its various offshoots across the country have demonstrated the power of instant messaging and video to document activities and mobilize citizens to action.

Issues have arisen locally and in other parts of the country concerning the recording of public safety and other government personnel in the conduct of their daily activities. The issues involve not only the practice of recording these personnel in public, but also the availability of the official recordings of their activities, and/or the 9-1-1 calls that precipitated them.

Here are some examples of how these activities affect us as citizens:

Your Right to Record the Police

From Long Island to Leetsdale to Las Vegas, this past year has seen public servants finding themselves on the wrong side of both the law and public opinion when confronted by a citizen with an audio or video recorder, and attempting to stop the recording. A recent federal court decision may put to rest any hint of ambiguity about the public's right to record public officials in the exercise of their official duties, including those in law enforcement.

The case involved Simon Glik, a Boston lawyer who recorded some questionable handling of an arrestee in 2007. He was himself arrested for doing this. The charges against him were dropped, and Mr. Glik successfully established in court that the attempt to prevent him from passively documenting the actions of the police flew in the face of our most fundamental liberties.

Here in the local area, law enforcement seems well aware of a citizen's right to record them in action, as well as a citizen's responsibility not to unlawfully interfere with police activities or jeopardize safety at the same time. Law enforcement training and legal bulletins, including this one, are getting the word out to police agencies about these rights and responsibilities, on both sides of the badge.

There are several online examples out there of how to record police, and how not to. A good overview is available here.

Pittsburgh CopBlock: Monitoring or Meddling?

Organized monitoring and recording of police activity has its roots in the time of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, when home video cameras were becoming an affordable reality for many. The first of many "Copwatch" groups was organized in 1990 in Berkeley, California. Their message and mission is clear:
Berkeley Copwatch is based on the idea that WATCHING the police is a crucial first step in the process of organizing. We do not attempt to interfere in police activity or to resist police misconduct physically. It is our hope that, one day, mass outrage at police and government violence will increase to a point where fundamental change in the nature of policing becomes inevitable.
As the years and technology have provided a means to instantly transmit video over the Internet from any number of small devices, some concerned with the behavior of their local police have taken this concept and tried a different approach. states that it exists in part to:
"..highlight the double standard that some grant to those with badges. By documenting police actions – whether they are illegal, immoral or just a waste of time and resources – then calling the police stations involved (ideally while recording and then later sharing your conversation), we can work together to bring about transparency and have a real impact".
This national organization has several affiliates, including one locally. Pittsburgh CopBlock has taken the strategy of the national organization one precarious step further - engaging in direct action that appears designed to elicit, or perhaps provoke, an emotional response from the officers involved. You can check out one of these activities here, and several more here.

Sewickley Patch, Beaver Countian, and other media have attempted to cover the local Copblockers and their activities, some of which have run them afoul of the local law. This occurred most recently in Leetsdale at Magistrate Robert Ford's office. The national CopBlock group has taken issue with some of this news coverage.

CopBlock Pittsburgh's efforts thus far consist largely of attempts to antagonize local law enforcement - by local I mean mostly Ambridge and the Quaker Valley departments - instead of calmly documenting their public activities in non-confrontational ways. Cops have to eat like everyone else - why go after them in a convenience store?

Despite the counterproductive nature of their rhetoric and tactics, I believe that Pittsburgh CopBlock has a valid point to get across, especially as it relates to our rights as citizens to document the activities of public servants. They're just going about it in a way that will serve only to isolate them in the larger arenas of public discourse.

Police officers have a very difficult job. I like to believe that the majority of them perform their duties with a healthy balance of respect for citizens, while possessing a situational awareness that sometimes makes it necessary to use force and aggressive tactics to mitigate a threat to themselves or others.

I also believe (but don't like to) that there are police officers out there that exceed the boundaries of both their authority and responsible conduct as a public servant. Citizens such as Simon Glik, along with excellent bloggers such as Carlos Miller, have demonstrated and brought attention to this on several occasions. The most recent affront to reasonable police actions, on the campus of the University of California at Davis, embellishes the point even further.

Perhaps CopBlock will consider joining the efforts of Copwatch, the ACLU, and others who seek to assure that police do their jobs within the boundaries set by law, while continuing to assure that their own behavior is protected by those same laws themselves.

The Official Record - Your Right to Know

Pennsylvania is one of only six states where the official recordings of 9-1-1 calls and public safety radio traffic are confidential, unless an agency or court decides that their release is in the public interest. These recordings and other information were specifically exempted in the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law of 2008.

Computer and written logs that provide information on response times are public, however, as is information regarding 9-1-1 callers, their phone numbers, and location information. This was reaffirmed by Commonweath Court in February of this year, reversing a lower court decision after a reporter filed suit to obtain records in York County.

In response to the Commonwealth Court decision, in March State Rep. Joseph Hackett (R-Delaware County) introduced HB 1174, which would specifically exclude the information about callers to 9-1-1 and their geographic location.

The bill was marketed as an attempt to protect crime victims and witnesses from possible retribution from the release of this information. It gained the immediate support of the bulk of the emergency response community and crime victims groups alike. With this support, and perhaps the looming approach of their summer recess, the state House unanimously passed this bill at the end of June, and sent it to the Senate.

The bill has remained in the hands of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee since then, perhaps in response to fairly loud voices in opposition to the bill. This includes the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, expressed through the editorial pages of its member newspapers, including the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. The Trib seemed to sum up these concerns best when it wrote:
"We can't support them unconditionally if they hide from us this critical information about their work," says Trib legal counsel David A. Strassburger about first responders, speaking on behalf of both newspapers and the public...The Senate must not fall for this rollback of transparency masquerading as aid for a victimized group.
If there is a true, genuine concern that criminals, abusers, and stalkers will resort to showing up at a police station or other government office to obtain this information through a Right to Know request, then build amendments into the law to specifically exclude information related to certain criminal cases from release without a court order.

Otherwise, the media and general public should have the ability to obtain information on how their public safety agencies respond to requests for assistance. A big part of this is being able to independently assess response time data to all areas of the communities that these agencies serve.

This information can also provide insight into additional resources requested to an emergency scene, how long it took those resources to arrive, and the appropriateness of the resources requested. This is important to assure that the most proximal resources needed for the job are the ones being requested and sent.

HB 1174 will allow government agencies to withhold much of this information.

As a public safety professional for most of my working life, I strive to make sure that the job I am doing can be held up openly before the public as an example of conscientious, professional service. I believe that accountability and transparency trump what seems to me to be an over-reaching effort to "protect" crime victims and witnesses. I also believe that there are those who seek the same "protection" whose aim is to conceal from the public examples of less than professional 

In the process of researching this bill, I requested comment from the ACLU of Pennsylvania regarding their take on it. Legislative Director Andy Hoover responded, "At the moment, we have no position on this bill but will continue to monitor this legislation and offer our input when appropriate".

As this bill has a potential direct impact on the ability of citizens to independently assess the accountability of police and other public servants, I would think that some kind of analysis and positioning on the part of the ACLU is well overdue, especially since police accountability is one of their stated priorities.

Contacting your state senator, and encouraging them to closely evaluate these factors when considering whether to support or oppose HB 1174, is definitely a good idea.

Why Does This Matter?

If you're interested enough to have read this far, then you're probably someone who values their ability to question government, assemble peaceably to voice concerns collectively, document the response of public servants, and not be subject to violence or criminal prosecution as a consequence of those actions. You can even deliver a relatively anonymous screed to a talk show host, or express your feelings responsibly online, and feel confident of your freedom and safety.

You can thank the Bill of Rights, and those like the ACLU who make it their mission and passion to defend the liberties granted under it. You can also thank laws that make government activities part of the public record, and prevent attempts at secrecy in the large majority of those activities.

We all have an obligation as citizens to be responsible stewards of these freedoms - not to take them for granted, not to set them aside just because someone thinks we should. 

One of the linchpins of a free society is a strong and vibrant news media. The media needs to have the tools at their disposal to report to the citizens, and as a consequence encourage public discourse and the means by which citizens engage in participatory government, whether as a public servant or an informed member of the electorate. 

With that in mind, enjoy your freedoms, and your week ahead.

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