PJ Media

Contempt of Cop: What’s the Law Say About Photographing Police?

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.

In my writings about the Erik Scott case at PJMedia (and in greater depth at Confederate Yankee), I wrote of the case of Mitchell Crooks (here and here) and provided this definition:

“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.

As long as citizens are not, in real ways, interfering with officers, they may watch, listen, and film to their heart’s content. That an officer may be annoyed by the realization that he is being filmed as he makes a traffic stop is merely one of the little annoyances of police work with which professional officers deal every day.  That actually happened to me on several occasions during my police service. I simply went about my business as I always conducted it, but did take care to politely wave and smile for the camera. I suspect that went a long way toward assuaging any suspicions those citizens might have had about my actions, as I received no complaints on those occasions.

There are, of course, many more interesting details in each case, and I recommend that readers take the provided links to discover them. Both cases represent a failure of training, supervision, and management from the shift level to the administrative offices of each agency. Rational, professional police officers live by understanding and acting upon five facts:

(1) Deadly danger is always possible at any time, but the overwhelming majority of citizens will never pose the slightest threat to police officers.

(2) There are always witnesses to everything police officers say and do; they must conduct themselves accordingly.

(3) Police officers are public servants who will be tempted to take things personally; they must always successfully resist that temptation.

(4) Police officers do not have the luxury of allowing anger to influence or dictate their actions.

(5) Keeping the good will of the public is vital; the police need the public more than the public needs them.

Keeping these facts in mind, the police certainly may legitimately arrest people for interfering with them. A classic example might occur when officers respond to a domestic violence call. When they arrest the man who just beat his wife to a pulp, the wife suddenly tries to get between him and the officers, perhaps even attacks them, to prevent his arrest. If an officer is trying to remain concealed as he approaches a potentially dangerous situation and a citizen tries to follow him with a camera, giving away his position and endangering their lives, that citizen surely might be arrested for interfering with an officer. Even someone who is standing nearby and yelling at officers, distracting potential suspects and making it difficult for officers to speak with those suspects, or someone who keeps trying to walk up behind officers while their attention is necessarily focused on something or someone else, might be legitimately arrested.

In general, as long as an officer can honestly and clearly demonstrate that the person they arrested was, in a direct and non-trivial way, actually interfering with their ability to properly do their jobs, that arrest is likely legitimate. In every case, the actions of the person arrested must clearly fulfill the elements of the statute under which they are arrested. This is true of every arrest made and every charge lodged. If the person arrested did not fulfill the elements — enumerated in clear language in the law — of each and every offense, arresting them for a violation of those laws is a false arrest.

In the Crooks and Good cases, however, no law was broken.

Crooks and Good were not only engaging in perfectly legal conduct, they were on their own property, stationary, and not in any way threatening or interfering with police officers prior to their arrests. Had the officers ignored them, Crooks and Good would have done nothing more than continue to stand on their own property, operating their cameras, filming what was apparently proper police behavior.

In both cases, an officer allowed himself to forget each of the five facts. He became annoyed because a citizen had the temerity to photograph him. He became enraged because a citizen did not immediately obey his illegal and unreasonable orders. They committed contempt of cop, and the officers stepped over the line between the legitimate exercise of their authority and personal offense. In so doing, they damaged not only those innocent citizens, but their own credibility and the credibility of every other police officer. It does not take many such incidents to lose the trust and support of the public, trust and support which once lost is very difficult to regain.

What can be done? What should have been done is as soon as the officers’ shift supervisors, their sergeants, discovered their mistakes, Good and Crooks should have been immediately released, all charges immediately dropped, and sincere and profuse apologies should have been made — not just in the hope of staving off lawsuits, but because such apologies were due them. The officers should have been disciplined and remedial training regarding citizen photography, the law, and community relations should have been scheduled. In short, it could and should have been immediately handled on the shift level.

A reading of the links accompanying this article indicates clearly that nothing at all was done in Las Vegas, and will leave the reasonable reader with serious doubts about the sincerity of Rochester police officials in their actions relating to Good’s arrest and vindication.

Mechanisms exist in every law enforcement agency and in every city or county to properly train and supervise police officers. This sort of abuse occurs when elected officials and government employees come to see themselves as the masters of the public rather than its servants. The citizens of Las Vegas and Rochester will almost certainly see their taxes increase to compensate Mitchell Crooks and Emily Good for the abusive behavior at the hands of police officers. It is up to every citizen to see that those who would allow such abuse be removed from office at the earliest opportunity.  Only then will it be possible to end such blatant abuse of police powers.