Baltimore police officers may not "prevent or prohibit" people from taking photographs or video of crime scenes and other law enforcement activities that are in public view, according to a department-wide directive made public Friday.
The new rules essentially repeat a policy that has long been the norm, department commanders say, but which has been difficult to enforce without written guidelines. The release of the general order comes after a series of confrontations between the seemingly ubiquitous camera-wielding public and officers in Baltimore and elsewhere — including several court challenges.
In one such case, a hearing is scheduled Monday in Baltimore's federal court in a civil suit filed by a man who says a city officer took his cellphone camera and deleted video of an arrest during the 2010 Preakness Stakes.
"This is an extension of the citizen's right to see," Mark Grimes, the chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, said of the directive. An officer, he said, "wouldn't go up to a citizen at a crime scene and tell them to close their eyes, so the officer can't tell them they can't film."
How law enforcement officers deal with the army of citizen-camera operators is a contentious issue across the country, with police frequently captured — and broadcast over the Internet — in questionable situations or using what many believe to be excessive force.
A Baltimore officer was fired after being caught on tape berating a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor, and a judge in Harford County threw out wiretapping charges last year against a motorcyclist who secretly videotaped his own traffic stop.
This month, a bystander caught a man assaulting a city police officer during an arrest, a tape that was used by police to highlight the dangers of the job. Still, people frequently complain that police order them to stop taking photographs or video of officers doing their jobs in public.
A schoolteacher handing out leaflets at the Inner Harbor last year said an officer ordered him to stop taking pictures and threatened to arrest him. Two police officers questioned a Baltimore Sun reporter taking pictures at a homicide scene last week but did nothing after learning he was with the media. A detective told the officers, "If he's taking pictures of my crime scene, it's evidence."
Similar agencies with camera policies — some posted on their Internet sites — include the Maryland Transit Administration and police departments in New Haven, Conn.; Philadelphia; Seattle; and Miami Beach, Fla.
Darrel W. Stephens, who is the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and on staff at the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, said many police agencies have policies about cameras, but few have made them part of their formal rules.
"The issue is contentious because few police have been given clear guidelines," said Stephens, a former chief of police in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. "I think it's a big step for the city of Baltimore to do that."
Stephens said officers "get annoyed with things from time to time, but once they've been given instructions, the overwhelming majority will act within the spirit and the letter of the policy. … Cameras are part of our world."
Baltimore police have several caveats, however, that allow officers to seize cameras or images that may be evidence of a crime, such as a license plate of a car speeding away from an accident. Police can also stop someone using a camera who is "hindering," or preventing an officer from "a successful resolution of the police activity."
That could include, the order says, people who "on rare occasions … deliberately create hazardous conditions with the intent of provoking an inappropriate police response." The directive says those people can be warned, and possibly arrested for obstruction.
But the seven-page order warns officers that merely taking photographs or video of police activity "does not constitute probable cause and should never be the reason for any arrest." The directive says the bystander must have broken laws, such as interfering or disorderly conduct, to be put in handcuffs.
If a person declines to hand over a camera that might contain evidence of a crime, the order says that police can detain the bystander but, in most cases, must obtain a search-and-seizure warrant. The officer can take the camera temporarily, police say, but cannot access or tamper with images until a decision on the warrant is made. Officers cannot delete or view any images, and must turn them over to the department's cybercrime unit.
Grimes called the new rules the most comprehensive of any department in the area. He believes most people with cameras want to help police. "We would hope that any good citizen in the city would say, 'Sure, I saw the kid get hit and got the whole thing on tape. Can I help you?'" he said.