Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Watch where you’re pointing that camera

Post by Brian O'Neill on Aug. 6, 2011 at 12:41 pm with 31 Comments »
August 6, 2011 12:41 pm

Second in a series of columns inspired by reader requests

Brawls, shootouts and car chases make for good television. Whether we are watching fictional cops portrayed by Hollywood actors or reality TV with real police officers on the job, speed and violence make for good ratings.

In most cases, we are also rooting for the cops. That is because when you watch a scene from one of these shows you are fully aware of the background story, and this contextual basis allows you to comprehend the subsequent actions of the cops as well as the bad guys.

That is not the case for the latest phenomenon: police incidents captured on cell phone cameras.

There are a proliferation of such videos being posted to Internet sites. Many of these purport to be examples of overly aggressive cops, including one sent to me by a reader who suggested the topic of police abuse on videos. Thank you reader (Yid), but the problem with this video, other than the fact that it is so far removed from the action that there is literally no visual basis for judgment on anything, is that it lacks context.

Rather than break this video down, I’ll use a scenario to make my point (cops love scenarios).

Imagine you are watching a “Cops” episode. The officer working with the cameraman is in a car chase following a suspect in a drive-by shooting. The chase ends in a crash, injuring two officers, and the suspect flees on foot. Two cops catch up to him in a park filled with people, many of whom begin filming the incident. As the suspect runs the police shoot him with a Taser, but the prongs don’t penetrate his heavy coat. A second attempt at Tasering also fails to penetrate clothing. The cops tackle him and in the struggle the suspect catches one in the groin with a kick. Four cops are eventually needed to hold the suspect down without further injury to anyone, and he is led off in handcuffs.

Watching this conclusion you are satisfied that the bad guy didn’t get away (at least I hope you are).

However, the teenager filming this imaginary incident catches only the following: four cops chase one guy into the park, Taser him twice and then jump up and down on him. The only sound is that of the teen filming, who can be heard saying, “Why do they need four cops to catch one guy? Why do they keep tasering him? Why are they grabbing his legs and pinning him to the ground?” The next day that video has 10,000 hits on Youtube and the police chief is responding to demands that the rogue cops be fired.

Far fetched? Absolutely not.

By no means am I suggesting that police officers are never rude, never get carried away, never lose their temper and throw one blow too many. That would be expecting too much from cops who are, after all, only human. When this occurs police officers should, and usually do, receive punishment above and beyond that of the average citizen.

I take exception, however, when videos are viewed without a contextual background. It is unfair to take a few seconds of action at face value when there are other angles, contributing factors and a great deal of background that would change the entire context of the incident.

One such example of this hubris was exhibited, I’m sorry to say, by my favorite columnist Leonard Pitts. In an article attacking cops for taking exception to citizens filming police action, he stamps us all with the label of hypocrite. Although I am a huge fan of Pitts’ craftsmanship and his championing of the impoverished, I consider it prejudicial to label individuals simply on the basis of their skin color, gender preference or, yes, even their profession.

Do I have a problem with a citizen videotaping me while on the job? Yes, but my displeasure is probably no greater than the citizen who goes live on my police car video whenever I hit my lights. So you may take the video, keep it if it has no evidentiary value, and post it on Youtube.

But please remember–that video is only one small piece of reality.


Leave a comment Comments → 31
  1. Prejudging based on any small part of the puzzle is not appropriate. Far too often, however, secret investigations where police officers refuse to provide details if they are not supportive of other officers, fake throw down weapons and other police dishonesty have been uncovered when in-depth analysis is done.

    I appreciate your trying to support your fellow honest officers. However, it is dangerous for cops to try to muzzle witnesses to a crime committed by citizens or ones committed by uniformed officers.

    Even though they may not be the complete story, videos are much more accurate than an “eye witness” account or a version of events concocted by prosecutors in collusion with the police after the fact.

  2. GrandMaster says:

    HA Ha! VERY funny! Cops recieve punishment ‘above and beyond the average citizen?!?’ Why are you twisting the truth into a blatant lie which is 180 degrees off from the truth?
    I have cameras on my vehicles. And will be installing more. I have never in my life encountered a group of people with so much of a propensity to lie as law enforcement, except maybe Tacoma longshore officials and some of the members

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    Tuddo and Grandmaster– While I appreciate your comments, I think you both have seen one too many conspiracy theory movies. If you are worried about a steady stream of police corruption and throw-down weapons, then I would welcome you to to visit developing countries where that sort of thing is prevalent. In this country it’s front page news and cops end up doing hard time, like this week’s news on some former New Orleans cops. There’s no video, though.

    While I agree that video is typically a better representation of fact than an eye witness, the point of my column was to highlight the fact that video should not be seen as the sole representation of how an event happened. Feel free to reread the column if you don’t understand that point.

  4. While I agree with you in that a video may not tell the whole story. I do agree with Tuddo in that it’s better then most eye witness accounts, including the cops.

    I’m all for video and sound recording of police actions by citizens and the police themselves. I believe these recordings help to keep everyone honest.

  5. Just a quick note, I believe that in Washington State it is illegal to make an audio recording without consent. This applies to video recording as well if it includes audio. Thus, those cell phone recordings may end up getting you a bit in trouble.

  6. Unless the officer is in a place where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” you’ll just have to put up with it.

  7. Gandalf: If you are recording audio in a public place my ( guess ) is that it is totally legal. I’m sure Brian will clear that up. There is a video compete with audio of a Tacoma Cop telling the cameraman that he could not record in the port area, As I recall the officer was found to be wrong.

  8. Gandalf: I’m happy I was able to find the video I referred to above of a couple of TPD officers at work which is on you tube.

  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    The matter of recording is tricky, especially here in WA State. Unlike many states, an audio recording in our state requires two party consent. This is one of the many choices Washington has made that values an individual’s expectation of privacy above and beyond that of the federal government. It is my understanding that violations of this, i.e. recording someone without their knowledge, can be brought before a civil court. That’s not my area of expertise so I stand ready to be corrected. However, any audio and video recordings cops make, during traffic stops or interview/interrogations, are always predicated by a boilerplate such as, “I am informing you that you are being video and audio-recorded.” Without this statement the recordings are viewed as inadmissible for criminal proceedings.

    If the video of two TPD officers was taken without their consent then, depending upon the nature of their conversation and the location in which it took place, a judge could award them damages against the person recording them if it were determined there was an expectation of privacy.

  10. Brian, I have more experience with the legal and justice systems in Texas, and many of their small-town cop shenanigans are facts, not conspiracy theories in movies.

    Without competent oversight by the public, through appropriate agencies or citizens, the power of the police can become corrupted. How easily this corruption is accomplished is often a matter of whether or not fellow police officers are willing to stand up against the corruptive forces.

    As I said in my comment that you took exception to, “Prejudging based on any small part of the puzzle is not appropriate.”

    Feel free to reread the comment if you don’t understand that point.

  11. gogoDawgs says:

    All parties generally must consent to the interception or recording of any private communication, whether conducted by telephone, telegraph, radio or face-to-face, to comply with state law. Wash. Rev. Code § 9.73.030. The all-party consent requirement can be satisfied if “one party has announced to all other parties engaged in the communication or conversation, in any reasonably effective manner, that such communication or conversation is about to be recorded or transmitted.” In addition, if the conversation is to be recorded, the requisite announcement must be recorded as well. Wash. Rev. Code § 9.73.030.

    A party is determined to have consented to recording if he is aware that the recording is taking place. Washington v. Modica, 149 P.3d 446 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006).

    Consent to recording of real-time conversation using online discussion software is implicit because participants know the conversations will be recorded on the other party’s computer. Washington v. Townsend, 20 P.3d 1027 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001).

    Moreover, an employee of a news organization engaged in newsgathering is deemed to have the requisite consent to record and divulge the contents of conversations “if the consent is expressly given or if the recording or transmitting device is readily apparent or obvious to the speakers.” Wash. Rev. Code § 0.73.030(4). Anyone speaking to an employee of a news organization who has been deemed to have given consent cannot withdraw that consent after the communication has been made. Wash. Rev. Code § 0.73.030(4).

    Statutory liability exists only for nonconsensual recording or intercepting, not divulging, of private conversations. Kearney v. Kearney. 974 P.2d 872 (Wash. Ct. App. 1999). The statutory terms “record” and “intercept” do not encompass the meaning of divulge.

    Whether a communication is considered “private” under the statute depends on the factual circumstances. Washington v. Townsend, 57 P.2d 255 (Wash. 2002). The state Supreme Court has identified three factors bearing on the reasonable expectations and intent of the parties: (1) duration and subject matter of the conversation, (2) location of conversation and presence or potential presence of a third party, and (3) role of the non-consenting party and his or her relationship to the consenting party. Lewis v. State Dept. of Licensing, 139 P.3d 1078 (Wash. 2006).

  12. gogoDawgs says:

    Also look at Flora v State….. 68 Wn. App. 802, 845 P.2d 1355, STATE v. FLORA

    Because the exchange was not private, its recording could not violate RCW 9.73.030 which applies to private conversations only. We decline the State’s invitation to transform the privacy act into a sword available for use against individuals by public officers acting in their official capacity. The trial court erred in denying Flora’s motion to dismiss. Flora’s conviction is reversed and the case dismissed.

  13. Brian O'Neill says:

    Gogodawgs-Not sure if that last paragraph on Flora v State of WA was from a legal brief or your own words. I’m thinking the latter, though I don’t know if I would use the term sword…

    Well researched, thanks.

  14. jimkingjr says:

    Let’s all be thankful for private citizens’ recordings in Seattle- of course, that they were needed is all because some of us have a conspiracy mindset, not because Seattle is a third-world country…

  15. Dear Brian,

    I read Pitt’s article and I believe the hypocrisy he mentions is based on the fact that Police, Prosecutors and the Court routinely rely on video evidence for convictions or video that sheds favorable light on LE.

    Conversely, nobody has said it better than PItt’s:

    That stench you smell is the reek of official hypocrisy. Because the same police who so violently and vividly resist being recorded in the performance of their duties have no compunction about using the same technology against you and me, from the speed camera that catches you when you go flying through the school zone to the new gizmo that reads your license plate and checks for warrants.

    If it is OK for police to use cameras to catch us in our misdeeds, why is it not OK for us to use cameras to catch police in theirs?

    There is something chilling and totalitarian about this insistence that cops have the right to do as they wish without what amounts to public oversight. What is it they fear? After all, the officer who is being videotaped can protect himself by doing one simple thing: his job.

    Read more:

    I posted a link to a video in our original thread. It can be found below.

    While it is only one piece of evidence. I believe the picture of the mentally ill man, his coma and death cannot be ignored as evidence either.

    The fact is clear that technology is playing an increasing role on Law Enforcement. Whether you see it as good or bad depends on how it is used and on which side of the fence you are sitting on.

    When it comes to use of force or deadly force does LE treat the mentally ill differently?

    Thank you again for your writings, Brian.


  16. Loooooooooong letter to the editor. I guess, when it comes to cops, the regular rules don’t apply.

    Here’s the deal – Cops are public officials interacting with the public in the public. I appreciate that their job is hard but there is really no reason that they should expect that their public actions should (or could) be kept private.

    There are too many recent episodes where cops throughout the country are arresting citizens for videotaping. Clearly an abuse of authority.

  17. Ooops – thought I was in the Letters to the Editor section – Please disregard the first paragraph of my above comment.

  18. BlaineCGarver says:

    Thank God Citizens have tools to protect themselves.Notice, please, that when a cop beats the stuff out of a photographer, the cop loses and the the photographer wins. Brian, you’re full of it: A citizen has the right to take pictures in a public place. The TNT or any journalist does not need permission to photograph and report the goings on of police in public. Maybe cops should be careful if they don’t want to appear brutal.

  19. BlaineCGarver says:

    A person close to me is training to be a LEO, bless him, but he informed me that if I was open carrying, I would be put to the ground. I know for a fact that I would have his azz in a sling toot sweet for that, and the agency would pay off my house, truck, and Harley.

  20. gogoDawgs says:

    Brian O’Neill says:
    AUGUST 7, 2011 AT 10:47 PM
    Gogodawgs-Not sure if that last paragraph on Flora v State of WA was from a legal brief or your own words. I’m thinking the latter, though I don’t know if I would use the term sword…

    Well researched, thanks.


    The Flora case that I quoted is from the court and is not my own words. It is specifically related as it was about a police interaction.
    As well as a strong advocate for the 2nd Amendment, I am also a strong advocate for the 1st, 4th and 5th Amendments as well.

  21. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for all the varying points of view. I would like to drop a last couple of responses regarding some, however, especially since it seems to be fairly tempting to put words in my mouth.

    Is it legal and fair to videotape police officers doing their duty? My answer, again, is yes. None of us in the law enforcement profession is above the law and we should be held to higher accountability. My point is that video should not be relied on to tell us the entire nature of any incident which it portrays–just as another witness can give an entirely different perspective, another camera angle can tell a whole different story as well.

    To paraphrase my own words, police officers sometimes do use excessive force, and the videotape of some SPD gang cops clearly demonstrates one such abuse. Whether or not the subject on the ground was an involved participant in a violent crime (he was), police officers need to be professional in order to be trusted by the community. Those cops got disciplined, though I haven’t checked in to see whether or not they got canned. In that case, kudos to the videographer.

    As for Leonard Pitts, my favorite columnist, I don’t disagree with his sentiments about police videotaping. I disagree with throwing us all in one barrel and rolling us down the hill. Were I to make the some point on an ethnic group it would be called racial profiling.

    And Blaine, I ain’t touchin’ that open carry comment. Too early in the morning.

  22. BlaineCGarver says:

    As for Leonard Pitts, my favorite columnist, I don’t disagree with his sentiments about police videotaping. I disagree with throwing us all in one barrel and rolling us down the hill. Were I to make the some point on an ethnic group it would be called racial profiling

    Ding, Ding, Ding….we have a winner. And yet, he’s your favorite..favorite what? comic? LMAO

  23. Brian, since you made the point several times that you thought Pitts was “throwing us all in one barrel”, I read his comments again. I saw where he said that “many” police disagree with videotaping and several states have made it a crime and many more are thinking about making it a crime to videotape based on police pressure.

    I think he made his case with his examples about “many” (a large indefinite number), but you missed the mark with saying he was talking about “all” (the entire or total number).

    There is a major difference between “many” and “all”. Even Pitts would not disagree if you said “Many” (insert ethnic group here) “have been convicted of crimes, but if you said “all”, yes, that would be a problem.

  24. smokey984 says:

    My favorite is when 2 people are standing side by side, watch the same incident and have 2 opposite opinions! Absolutely perfect.

  25. Just when you think Brian might be maturing as a cop, man and journalist, he writes some garbage like this. Fact is, cops have been on a rampage lately, and have been getting caught. Just listen to the gangster in blue Rich O’Neil regarding his gang of blue, the Seattle PD.

    Brian, you degrade your profession with columns like this. Can never figure out if you are one of the corrupt cops who are part of the problem; or a misguided good cop who feels the need to defend his brothers indefensible actions. Definitely hard to figure out from your writings which side of the moral line you are on.

  26. Brian O'Neill says:


    It appears that your idea of “maturing as a cop” would be for me to rubber stamp your outsider’s view of my profession. The intent of my column was to shine a little light on my job because few people understand what it’s truly like, you included. I’m not sure how else to reply to your comments because I’m neither defending other officers’ actions nor suggesting that videotaping police action is wrong. I can only repeat that people should seek out more information before making a swift judgment based on minimal video footage.

  27. My idea of you “maturing as a cop” would be for you to recognize the disgusting people in your rank and file that degrade your profession, and actively speak against them. Some videotapes are clearly no big-the cop using necessary force against those big girls in Seattle 6 months or so ago-pretty clear she violated his space, and deserved a punch to the face. That cop was just regaining control of a tough situation.

    However, if you can write an article like this, without clearly acknowledging the repeated civil rights violations of officers recently captured on file (Seattle Police Dept especially), you show what side of the thin blue line you are on.

  28. meant captured on film

  29. Brian O'Neill says:

    Your point is well taken, but this particular column has little to do with police brutality and everything to do with over-valuing short snippets of video footage. I have already addressed several of the SPD incidents this past year in previous columns, including my contributions to Inside Opinion.

    When the next blunder comes along, as I’m sure it will, I’ll do my best to provide my point of view. That way you can dissect my comments from a more appropriate standpoint.

  30. I’ll try again, see if you delete this one too…….Your use of the word “blunder” to describe police brutality shows me which side of the thin blue line you are on.

  31. Brian O'Neill says:

    Your last comment, much like this one, is tired and simply off the point. But I’ll answer and then move on….

    Blunder. Mistake. Screw-up. Don’t know how hard you need someone to match up your synonym of choice for a negative action in order for you to consider it properly despised. I think you’re trying so hard to disagree that you fail to see that you actually do agree. Again.

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