Police Must Make Apology to Man Who Taped Traffic Stops

From time to time, Apology Index looks at apologies by the police. These often involve cases of wrongful arrest or other police misconduct. Here is a case from Pennsylvania in which “Two local police departments have agreed to apologize for citing a man who took video footage of officers’ traffic stops in early 2007.” (Pottstown Mercury)

Here is the gist of the incident:

On Feb. 19, 2007, Spring City police officers asked Hookway to step out of his vehicle after he was seen filming a traffic stop from a distance, according to the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Police then handcuffed Hookway, placed him in a police car and searched his vehicle, said ACLU staff attorney Mary-Catherine Roper.

Based on (unconfirmed) information in the reader comments following the article, Mr. Hookway may not exactly be a model citizen himself. But that is quite irrelevant to the question of whether he, as a private citizen, has the right to videotape uniformed police officers in the performance of their duties. Under Pennsylvania law, it appears that he does. Hence the settlement in this case:

Roper, the ACLU attorney, said police officers often believe residents do not have the right to film them. She said they erroneously apply the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act, which deals with the discreet recording of private conversations.

Courts have been “very clear” on this matter, she said. So long as residents do not interfere with police duties or harass any other person, they have a right to document officers’ activities while they are in uniform.

I am sure that many police officers do not like the idea of private citizens monitoring their activities, but in a free society it is absolutely essential that our right to do so be protected. We grant our law enforcement officers great powers, including the power to detain, arrest, and question citizens and to use deadly force in the appropriate circumstances. Most officers take that responsibility as seriously as they should. Some bad few abuse it. The police make great sacrifices on our behalf–but that does not mean they should be immune to public scrutiny. 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  The answer is, we, the people.

We don’t have the text of the letters of apology here. They may not have been written yet. But this is a case where an apology is most certainly called for.