There is no doubt that more and more people in the United States feel compelled and empowered to pull out our phones when we see a police encounter. Even as some of our shortsighted public sector leaders have downplayed the importance of citizen participation in holding police accountable, or even demonized those who take action, people continue to press record. As Carlton Williams, an activist and lawyer with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said last fall, “people’s backs have stiffened.”
But if we are increasingly willing to film the police, are we actually ready to do so safely and effectively? To make an impact as a witness, you need to know your rights and how to exercise them, understand how to best prepare yourself and your phone and have a plan for what you’ll do with an important photo or video after you shoot it. That’s where training and leadership from copwatchers, activist lawyers, community organizers, and others come in. We work alongside many of those leaders and have leaned heavily on their guidance and input alongside our own expertise, so we wanted to distill some of that knowledge into an accessible format. The product of that work is below – in the form of a new WITNESS tipsheet – and you can download it here.
As with all our materials, this tipsheet is released under a creative commons license, so it can be reused, adapted, and borrowed from however you see fit, and we will continually refine it. On our end, this basic guidance is already being incorporated into trainings alongside more in-depth material. See the full tipsheet available for download in the WITNESS Library.
For more on how citizen witnessing of police violence is evolving, see our in-depth look via the WITNESS Media Lab.
Here’s a summary of the tipsheet:
FILMING THE POLICE
Be ready and willing to act as an eyewitness. Good witnessing can de-escalate a situation, help someone confronted by police, and provide valuable documentation for advocacy and justice.
Know your rights. It is legal to film police in the United States, as long as you don’t interfere and comply if you’re told to back up. Exercising your rights while respecting officers’ requests can be a balancing act; look to ACLU, NLG, EFF, or local copwatchers for guidance.
>>Key point: Learn more about your rights at bit.ly/ACLU_Right2Record
Prep your phone. Video takes up lots of space, so pay attention to storage. A password (not Touch ID) is essential for protecting phones and videos from searches under the Fifth Amendment. Having auto backup can save footage to the cloud if it’s lost, deleted, or confiscated.
>> Key point: The police can’t search your phone without your consent or a warrant, but they can take it as evidence.
Film with intention. Assess the risks before filming. Stay calm and film long, steady and uncut shots. Capture as much of the encounter – beginning to end – as you can. Film key details and other sources of evidence. Write down additional details and info shortly afterwards.
>>Key point: Hold each shot steady for at least 10 seconds!
Think before sharing. Think about how your video can make an impact, and how you can protect yourself and those you film. Instead of immediately uploading to social media, consider first going to a lawyer, the victim or their family, or local activists.
>>Key point: Preserve the original file and make copies if you plan to edit it.
WHAT TO CAPTURE?
Filming for human rights can be dangerous. Be safe. Be ethical. Be effective.
Key Details: Weapons, bullet holes, injuries, blood stains, surrounding area, distances, badge/helmet/ license plate numbers, uniforms/indications of ranking, police formations, others observing/filming – including supervisors giving orders, surveillance cameras, etc.
Multiple angles can add context: birds-eye view, wide shots, medium shots, close ups
Location, Time, Date: Film a landmark, street sign, watch, newspaper, etc., so it’s easier for lawyers and investigators to verify the content in the video.
Let the video speak for itself: Refrain from adding narration or commentary. Attorneys need to hear what the police are saying.
Featured image by Al Schroetlin, Denver, CO, Oct 9, 2007