As the WITNESS Media Lab explores the impact of eyewitness videos of police abuse in the United States, we are also examining what bystanders need to know in order to document police encounters safely and effectively.

  • What are my rights to film a police encounter?
  • What information should I record, and how?
  • I’ve just filmed police abuse. What should I do with the video?

These are some of the questions that cross the minds of bystanders who witness police misconduct. The way each person answers them may determine how effective their footage can be in achieving accountability for injustice.

To support these efforts, we’ve compiled a list of resources from groups like American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), CopWatch, People’s Justice, and WITNESS, that provide guidance for those who film police encounters in the U.S. They are divided into the following categories: Know Your Rights, Filming Techniques, Livestreaming, Distribution & Reporting, and Preservation. Below are a few recommendations from each category. You can view the full list here.

Know Your Rights

  • ACLUKnow Your Rights – Photographers: Good overview of your rights to photograph and film the police. Also spells out the particularities around recording audio in several states.
  • Communities United for Police Reform (CPR)Know Your Rights! Help End Discriminatory, Abusive and Illegal Policing: A nicely designed pamphlet on how to interact and respond to police in a variety of scenarios, including cop watching, stop-and-frisk, being pulled over in a car, etc. Focused on New York State, also available in Spanish.
  • EFF – Know Your Rights – Phone and computer seizure: Focuses on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable government searches or seizures of your computer or portable electronic devices, such as cell phones or cameras.

Filming Techniques

  • CopBlockFilm the Police: Good suggestions on how to stay calm and collected when filming, with sample language on how to respond to police if you are asked to stop filming or are being arrested. Also includes suggestions for low cost cameras, apps, and programs to recover deleted footage.
  • Network for Eliminating Police ViolenceFilming the Police: A Basic Guide: Though this guide is focused on cop watching in Canada, it provides good tips on filming strategically, including remembering the 5 W’s to make sure you capture key details. (Who, What, Where, When, Why)
  • WITNESS – Filming Protests & Police Misconduct: Quick tips for safely and effectively filming protests and misconduct. Also see the 5-part video series on filming protests.
  • WITNESS – Use This App to Film the Police…or Not: Guidance on filming with a mobile phone and tips on selecting and testing mobile apps for documenting police abuse.
  • WITNESSVideo as Evidence: Basic Filming Practices: This is aimed at helping eyewitnesses and activists use video to document abuses and support the process of bringing perpetrators to justice and freeing the wrongly accused.

Livestreaming

  • BBCLive-streaming the Ferguson protests: A BBC crew tested out Meerkat during a February 2015 protest in Ferguson, MO. The article discusses their process, the challenges they encountered and their overall impression of the app.
  • WeCopWatchLive Streamers Make Great Informants: This article outlines some of the security and privacy issues around livestreaming protests, along with various ways that livestreaming can harm the protest organizers’ strategy and planning. It highlights good and bad livestreaming tactics.
  • WITNESSHow We Can Use Livestreaming Apps to Promote Justice: Explores how livestreaming has been used in recent protests around the world and some of the possibilities and risks involved in using live video to document human rights violations.

Distribution & Reporting

  • National Lawyers GuildNational Police Accountability Project – This site provides a long list of attorneys across the U.S. and promotes the accountability of law enforcement officers through trainings for legal professionals, public education and more.
  • WITNESSVideo as Evidence: Basic Filming Practices: Starting on page 13, you’ll find guidance on sharing video evidence either publicly or privately with trusted individuals and organizations.
  • WITNESSAuthenticating Online Video: This is an important resource to review if you are sharing videos that others have filmed. The guide outlines four basic steps that can be taken to determine whether or not the content of an online video is authentic. Find more verification tools on the WITNESS Media Lab.

Preservation

  • WITNESSActivists Guide to Archiving Video: Archiving video is an essential, but often overlooked component of video advocacy. Learn best practices for organizing, storing, preserving, and sharing your footage. WITNESS also produced a series of short videos covering archiving basics, such as Planning to Preserve Video for Human Rights, Deconstructing Digital Video for Activists and What is Video Metadata?

Where are the Resource Gaps?

While there are number of resources on filming techniques and the right to film police, we identified several areas that lack clear guidance. For example, we found a few articles on the pros and cons of livestreaming, but few tips specifically addressing livestreaming protests or police misconduct. Additionally, there is a lack of guidance around the ethical and logistical considerations of sharing sensitive footage in the public domain or to a select group of people. To begin filling these gaps, over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring these issues with the help of the National Lawyers Guild, The Legal Aid Society and other experts in the field.

We Need Your Help!

This is part of an ongoing effort to assess the needs for filming police abuse safely and effectively, and we need your help. What resources have we missed? Where would you like to see more guidance? Please share your thoughts in this form or Tweet them to @witness_lab. We look forward to hearing from you!

Featured Image: Still from New York Times video Copwatch vs. Cops: After Freddie Gray

You can learn more about WITNESS’ work on police violence in the US on the WITNESS Media Lab

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