One evening in September 2014, John Prince heard a scream through his window.
He went outside. On the sidewalk in front of his home, a first-floor apartment on Elmwood Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island, two male plainclothes police officers were aggressively questioning a pair of young women.
“The cops were being really rude,” Prince said, “asking intimidating questions like, ‘What’s in your handbag?’ and ‘Where are you coming from?'”
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They ordered the women to sit on the curb. Prince says he saw one of the officers put his hands inside the waistband of one of the women’s sweatpants.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” Prince called to the officer. The officer turned, told him to mind his own business and shove off.
“There is a widespread, continuing pattern of police ordering people to stop taking photos or video in public places.”
But John Prince, who’s lived in Providence for 45 years, did not shove off. He’s a Black community organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). (Note: The author has volunteered at DARE, where he met Prince a few years ago.) He and his neighbors have fought for decades to confront a criminal legal system that, in his words, “treats people of color as if they’ve always already done something wrong.”
Instead of “shoving off,” Prince did what more and more people in heavily policed communities are doing when they witness what looks like police misconduct. He went inside, got his cell phone and came back out filming.
“Why are you doing that?” one officer asked, angry now.
“I don’t like the way you’re treating those women,” Prince said. The cop told Prince that he and his fellow officers were undercover and instructed Prince to stop recording. Prince insisted that he had a right to film them. The officer demanded Prince’s identification.
“Why do you want it?” Prince asked.
“I want to know who’s filming me,” said the cop. Prince knew he didn’t have to show the cop his ID. He refused.
As they argued, another officer arrived on the scene. Seeing that Prince was wearing a Barack Obama hat, the third cop called out, “Hey, Obama!” The joke did not lighten the mood.
The first officer asked for Prince’s ID again, more forcefully. At that moment, Prince felt a prick of fear. He took a few steps back.
As he did so, the commanding officer yelled, “Get that phone!” and the two others cops leaped over the fence between the sidewalk and the yard, charging at Prince. He turned and ran toward his house.
According to Prince, the cops caught up to him in the entranceway. One of them slammed him against the wall, badly injuring his neck. As he reached for the doorway to his apartment, one or two of the cops tackled him. His pants fell below his knees as they pushed his face against the ground. Someone grabbed the phone from his hand.
The real problem is not the law, but cops’ willingness – and apparent license – to ignore it.
In their statements to internal affairs, the officers admit to jumping the fence and chasing Prince. They don’t say what they intended to do if they caught him. The police claim that Prince tripped up the stairs to his house and fell into the entranceway. Detectives Francisco Guerra and Louis Gianfrancesco, the officers giving chase, say they stopped at the threshold of the building and turned around. Gianfrancesco says he found Prince’s phone on the steps and placed it on the trunk of Guerra’s car. They deny tampering with it.
However, Lisa Reels, who was inside Prince’s apartment when all this happened, says she heard the officers tackling Prince. When she came out to see what was happening, Prince was on the floor with his pants around his ankles. The cops were out the door.
Determined to find his phone – and the video – Prince went back outside. There, he says he saw one of the cops delete the video and throw his phone into the bushes.
“That’s what you get for interfering with police business,” another cop said.
Reporters speak of an “epidemic” of police violence in Black communities. But there isn’t one, at least not in the dictionary sense of a disease that breaks out at a particular time. What we have is an old, deadly sickness suddenly subject to an unprecedented degree of exposure. The idea of a sudden “outbreak” of police violence – beginning with the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 or Ramarley Graham in 2012 or Oscar Grant in 2009 – mistakes the moment many White Americans were forced to start paying attention to this crisis for the moment it emerged.
Police violence isn’t new – nor is the impunity with which it’s treated by the legal system – but the current level of public concern over its prevalence is. And individual acts of filming the police have played a big role in that change.
“There’s some newfound awareness because of social media and video cameras,” said President Obama on April 28, in his characteristically cautious tone, “that there are problems and challenges when it comes to how policing and our laws are applied in certain communities, and we have to pay attention to it and respond.”
The protests in Baltimore were fueled, in part, by video captured by a bystander of cops dragging a handcuffed Freddie Gray into their police van. The 25-year-old can be heard screaming in pain. He was unresponsive when they arrived at the station and died a week later.
“There’s no incentive for the cops not to fuck with us in the first place.”
Walter Scott Sr., whose son was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina, weeks earlier, said, “I fell to my feet and my heart was broken,” when he first saw footage of his son’s death. But he “thanked God” that someone took the video. Without it, the real circumstances of his son’s death, he said, “would never have come to light. They would have swept it under the rug, like they did so many others.”
William Murphy, Freddie Gray’s family’s lawyer, echoed that sentiment on April 27. “Thank God for cellphone video cameras,” he said, “because now the truth is finally coming out. And it’s ugly.”
For decades, said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, “It’s been the word of uniformed police officers against the word of accused criminals – who are usually poor, Black or other minorities. Judges, prosecutors and the public have historically taken the side of the police.” But videos – usually captured by camera-equipped cell phones – are beginning to change that. “There’s a shift,” Stanley added, “in what people are willing to believe.”
Largely unaddressed in the mainstream celebration of video as a bulwark against police brutality, however, is how the act of pointing a camera at a cop is sometimes itself met with brutality – especially when, as in John Prince’s case, the person behind the camera is Black.
Prince’s story is a familiar one to Aidge Patterson, who coordinates a Cop Watch program for People’s Justice in New York City, training individuals and organizing groups of residents to patrol their neighborhoods and record police encounters.
“When we roll out as a team, it’s rare we observe any police violence. It usually puts them on their best behavior to see us in our matching shirts, disciplined and organized,” Patterson told Truthout.
And that’s the point. “The priority is to deter anything from happening in the first place,” he added.
But that’s not always how it works when residents film the police by themselves. Individual cop watchers often get arrested and charged with minor offenses – disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice or trespassing. “It’s intimidation,” Patterson said. “They know folks don’t want to go to jail, even if they’ll beat the charge later.”
“The public servant should be subject to the public eye. Private individuals should be able to maintain our privacy.”
The website “Photography Is Not a Crime” collects and maintains an archive of police brutality videos, many of which show cops harassing the person wielding the camera. In a recent video from Vineland, New Jersey, cops can be seen siccing a police dog on 32-year-old Phillip White, who had already been beaten and appears to be subdued. One officer then approaches the person with the camera and says, “Did you see what happened here? All of it? Okay, I’m going to need your information, and I’m going to take your phone.” Phillip White died from injuries he sustained during the encounter.
Ramsey Orta – who filmed New York City Police Department (NYPD) Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner to death – has been arrested twice since Garner’s murder in July 2014. His mother, brother and wife have all been arrested as well. Orta’s aunt, Lisa Mercado, told Democracy Now! that after Garner’s death, police cruisers regularly drove by their house in the middle of the night, shining floodlights through their windows. Orta was released from Rikers in April, after prosecutors withdrew a challenge that would have blocked him from posting bail with money raised by supporters online. He believes he and his family have been targeted by the NYPD as retaliation for filming Garner’s murder.
And Feidin Santana – who filmed the video that led to the arrest of Officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott – says he initially considered deleting the footage and leaving town for fear of retaliation from the police. “The first thing he said to me … was, how can I get protection,” Santana’s lawyer told NBC News. “What does he do when the people that are supposed to protect us are the ones that are turned against us?”
Their fears are well founded. Jay Stanley of the ACLU said, “There is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.” The ACLU has helped people sue departments in Boston, Portland, Philadelphia and other cities for violating their right to film police.
Stanley says the law itself is “crystal clear”: You have a constitutionally protected right to film the police in public as long as you don’t interfere with their activities. The US Justice Department agrees. As they wrote in a 2012 statement of interest:
The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution. They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.
Although only four federal courts have explicitly recognized a constitutional right to film police, legal scholars tend to agree with the Justice Department that recording a police encounter is protected under the First Amendment. “Speech about how public officials are conducting their duties lies at the core of the First Amendment’s protections,” said Evan Bernick and Paul Larkin of the conservative Heritage Foundation, “and filming should therefore be given a wide berth.”
The real problem, Stanley suggests, is not the law, but cops’ willingness – and apparent license – to ignore it.
Aidge Patterson agrees. “The law and the rights people are supposed to have are different from the realities of how things play out. When the cops arrest our people for filming, they get off. But they still get arrested, still get thrown in jail. There’s no incentive for the cops not to fuck with us in the first place.”
This problem – that cops rarely face any serious consequences for interfering with a civilian’s right to film – is one legislators in Colorado are trying to address with a new bill, part of what has been dubbed the “Rebuilding Trust” package of police reform laws moving through their state legislature.
“If it weren’t for people like Ramsey Orta, nobody would know Eric Garner’s name.”
The bill would create a “private right of action” for Coloradans to sue police for $15,000 in civil damages when an officer interferes with them lawfully filming a police encounter, or when an officer destroys or seizes a recording without consent or a court order. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, said the bill is a response to reports of Colorado police forcing citizens to give up their cameras, which Salazar, a civil rights lawyer, says is “unacceptable conduct.”
Denis Maes, a public policy director of the Colorado ACLU who testified in support of the bill, said its penalties are designed to “get the police departments to pay attention and train police about what they are and aren’t allowed to do.”
The bill has received some pushback from local police and prosecutors, who say it’s unnecessarily punitive. Anne Marie Jensen, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said the union “does not believe that the people who put their lives at risk every day should have different standards of liability than anyone else in government.”
Tom Raynes of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council agreed that officers need to be better trained, but insisted that “accountability through lawsuits is a pretty cynical approach to getting this done.”
Maes, who served in the Obama administration before joining the ACLU, sees some irony here. “It’s always in the name of law enforcement that we, the public, are subject to rampant surveillance, but somehow when the surveillance shifts to us watching law enforcement, there’s an immediate, ‘Hey wait a minute, not cool.'”
She says today’s surveillance paradigm needs to be flipped. “The public servant should be subject to the public eye. Whereas, we private individuals should be able to maintain our privacy.”
A few days after his assault, John Prince filed a complaint with the Providence Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, at the insistence of an acquaintance in the department. Neither of the women the police detained that night were arrested. They elected not to file their own complaints.
A series of hearings followed in November, and in early April, Prince and his lawyer were informed that two of the three officers named in his complaint were found guilty of violating departmental policies. Sgt. Roger Aspinall – who ordered the others to seize Prince’s phone – received a one-day, unpaid suspension, a disciplinary letter and mandatory retraining. Francisco Guerra – one of the officers who chased Prince – also got a letter and retraining, but no suspension. Louis Gianfrancesco, the officer who called Prince “Obama,” was not found guilty, but will also undergo retraining.
The department was evasive, however, about the reasoning behind these penalties.
Providence Police Department spokeswoman Lindsay Lague told Truthout that because of the “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” she could not confirm the names of the disciplined officers. She admitted that Prince “was chased by an officer in the hallway,” and that the “supervisory officer on scene who gave the orders to do so was appropriately disciplined.”
However, she said, “It has not been confirmed if an officer did delete the video off of Prince’s phone that evening,” and neither Prince’s injuries nor the tackling allegations were acknowledged by the Internal Affairs Bureau.
It seems worth noting that “he tripped and fell” is something of a go-to explanation for cops accused of brutality. Indeed, former NYPD Detective Bo Dietl recently offered it as a possible explanation for Freddie Gray’s severed spinal cord on Fox News.
The internal affairs process doesn’t address whether the police department bears any fault for the violations. However, on October 3, 2014, just two weeks after Prince filed his complaint, the department posted a new “community relations” general order stating:
It is the policy of the Providence Police Department to recognize that members of the public have the right to record police officers in public places as long as the actions of those recording do not interfere with the officer’s official duties or with the safety of officers or others.
Lague says this policy was already in development when the incident happened.
Prince says the punishments meted out by internal affairs are not enough.
“One day without pay. Retraining. Some kind of ceremony where they sit around in a circle and talk about what they did – it’s not enough,” he said. “These men ran up in my house, tackled me, took my phone, deleted shit from it and told me ‘that’s what you get.'”
If Prince’s account is true, the officers may be guilty of First and Fourth Amendment rights violations. An Albuquerque officer was charged with felony evidence tampering for deleting a cellphone video of alleged police misconduct. The City of Baltimore settled a civil suit over a deleted video for $250,000.
“They treated me like I didn’t matter,” Prince said, “and all they got was a slap on the wrist.”
Video will not solve the problem of police violence. Nor can it ensure that victims get “justice” – whatever form that may take. Video may have helped inspire massive demonstrations in Baltimore, but it remains to be seen whether charges filed on May 1 against the six Baltimore police officers who arrested Freddie Gray will stick in court.
And yet, as Aidge Patterson says, “If it weren’t for people like Ramsey Orta, nobody would know Eric Garner’s name.” The same can be said for Walter Scott, for Oscar Grant, for Rodney King.
When you film cops, you take away some of their control over the narrative. As Jay Stanley recently said, “Photography is a form of power, and people are loath to give up power, including police officers.”
Cameras – particularly those wielded by regular people and not cops – have helped to address what has always been among the greatest impediments to combating police brutality in the United States: the unwillingness of the criminal legal system to acknowledge Black suffering or believe a story of Black victimhood.
It’s yet another cruelty of White supremacy that a movement as beautiful and humane as Black Lives Matter must trade in images of brutalized Black bodies in order to legitimize its grievances in the face of White incredulity. It should not be so. But for now, it is.
Thus, we need to make sure people are safe to film the police in their neighborhoods without being harassed, arrested or assaulted. We need more bills like the one in Colorado – which has been sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk – and more severe penalties for cops like Aspinall, Guerra and Gianfrancesco.
Filming cops, Patterson says, is not only about accountability. “It’s also about empowering communities to protect themselves.
“We see it as an act of love,” he added, “a way of showing up and letting people know, ‘Look, I care about you, and I’m here to try and make sure you go home safe tonight.'”