Despite that Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey wrote a memo in 2011 advising all officers that civilians are permitted to take photographs or video footage of them in public places, some in the department have been slow to adapt. A year after Ramsey informed police of this, a photojournalism student at Temple University, Ian Van Kuyk, was arrested near his Point Breeze home for obstructing justice, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct while taking photographs of his neighbor’s arrest. Van Kuyk’s girlfriend Meghan Feighan was also arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.
The commissioner’s directive explains that the public has the right, as explained by the Daily News, “to record officers as long as they are not interfering with the officer’s safety or ability to conduct official duties.” Due to this, a municipal judge found the couple not guilty on all charges, but now Van Kuyk and Feighan are bringing a lawsuit against the two officers who arrested them, alleging assault, battery, false arrest and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.
It is also worth noting that most police departments have dashboard cameras in their cruisers for several reasons: they can capture photographic evidence of traffic stops (and in so doing protect police officers), but they can also protect citizens from excessive force.
Mark Tanner of Feldman Shepherd, who represents Van Kuyk and Feighan, commented to the Daily News, “The police, we don’t think, should view someone who is photographing or videotaping their activity as an adversary. If you’re a public servant and you’re doing your job and doing it well, then video evidence or photographic evidence can only help you.” This comes on the heels of a January article also in the Daily News in which a police officer made a reporter stop taking photos of an arrest outside a jewelry store in Center City, “When asked for an explanation, the officer said that it was ‘police business’ and that photos weren’t allowed.”
This non-compliance has led to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania getting involved. This organization is suing Philadelphia in federal court “for allegedly arresting people in retaliation for observing or photographing officers performing their duties.” A spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department claims, “All officers have been informed of this policy via roll call and other training methods, and each officer has been provided a copy of the policy. We haven’t seen any recent issues regarding this policy, but if we are informed of any issues then we will address those issues properly.”
Unfortunately, it seems as if these incidents show no signs of stopping and that police are treating those civilians with cameras as a threat. As is the case so often with discussions on this blog, the civil justice system remains one of the only sites in which private citizens can attain compensation for wrongs done to them by larger organizations.