Contempt of Cop: What’s the Law Say About Photographing Police?
Some recent incidents of police misconduct have brought national attention to the phenomenon.
July 16, 2011 - 12:00 am
Emily Good: the name sounds like a school teacher, a virtuous heroine, and “Mitchell Crooks” surely is an evildoer. What do these two have in common? They’ve both been cited for, essentially, “contempt of cop.” They dared to photograph police officers in the act of performing their usual, apparently unremarkable duties.
The arrest — even beating — of citizens who have done nothing more than photograph police officers has been happening recently, a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend.
“Contempt of cop” is a play on words of the common legal term “contempt of court.” The latter refers to a judge holding someone responsible for conduct — usually in the courtroom — that is disrespectful or disruptive, that reflects blatant contempt for the law, the judge and his lawful authority. The former is similar. It refers to a cop’s reaction to the same kind of behavior by a citizen in their presence. In the best sense of the term, an officer’s attention will be attracted by someone who goes out of their way to irrationally and unnecessarily antagonize a police officer in a public setting. In such circumstances, it would be foolish for a police officer to allow that person to go unpunished lest their behavior encourage others to insult, even attack other officers.
Contempt of cop also applies to the worst instincts some police officers develop. In those cases, officers become “badge-heavy,” they begin to take matters personally. They become hypersensitive to any insult, real or imagined. They don’t consider the elements of the law, they take offense, act first and make up the rest later. Such officers are unpredictable and dangerous, not only to the public, but to their fellow officers who know that the bad will of the public is cumulative. Abuse the citizenry enough, and the officers who suffer for it — and some will suffer — will often be professionals, men and women of good will undeserving of their fates.
What kind of outrageous, threatening behavior caused the police to arrest these two people?
Hearing a helicopter circling his neighborhood at low altitude, Mitchell Crooks noticed the Las Vegas Metro Police dealing with several suspects near his home. Taking up his new, expensive video camera, Crooks stood in his driveway and filmed what appeared to be a completely unremarkable police action. Officer Derek Colling, transporting two prisoners in the back of his car, saw Crooks and spotlighted him. He stopped and approached Crooks, demanding that he stop filming.
When Crooks refused, Colling attacked, knocking his camera to the ground — it kept recording. He hit, kicked, and taunted and threatened Crooks even as he lay bloody and unresisting, crying out for help.
Colling arrested Crooks for trespassing, but after discovering that Crooks was, in fact, on his own property, he changed the charge to battery on a police officer. Crooks’ videotape revealed that Colling’s version of events was, to put it as kindly as possible, fanciful, and all charges were dismissed.
Colling apparently faced no discipline and continues to work as a Metro officer. Crooks is suing.
Seeing a traffic stop taking place on the street in front of her home, Emily Good stepped onto her front lawn and began to film the unremarkable event with her video camera. Officer Mario Masic told her to go into her home, saying that he and the other two officers did not feel safe with her there. Her video makes clear that she was on her yard, standing a considerable distance from the officers. Good explained, politely, that she was on her own property and wished to remain outside. Masic continued to argue, obviously becoming more and more frustrated that Good did not immediately obey him — telling her that she was disobeying “police orders.” After a few minutes, he arrested her for obstructing governmental administration.
Good’s video, retrieved by a friend after she was arrested, went viral, and a judge took less than a minute to dismiss the charge at his first opportunity. Good also intends to sue and to work for greater police accountability.
Can citizens photograph police while they are doing their duties? In general, yes. It is clearly established law that the police may watch, listen to, or photograph citizens without a warrant and without notice or permission in public places wherever they do not have “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Generally speaking, if another citizen could watch, film, or overhear you in a public place, the police may too. Even if you are standing in your front yard raking leaves, can you reasonably expect that you are invisible to passersby, that they may not hear your off-key singing?
The same general rules apply to the police. When they are in the full view of the public, doing what the public pays them to do, any citizen is within their rights to observe those officers, and even to film them. In such circumstances, the police have no reasonable expectation of privacy. It can be reasonably argued that as public employees doing the business of the public, they have even less expectation of privacy than the general public.