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New policy says public has right to film Md. officers

The Baltimore Police Department has instituted a new policy that prohibits officers from stopping people from taping or photographing police actions

By Luke Broadwater
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE The Baltimore Police Department has instituted a new policy that prohibits officers from stopping people from taping or photographing police actions, the agency said Wednesday.

The new rules were unveiled as the city agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a man who says police seized his cellphone and deleted the video of an arrest at the Preakness Stakes in 2010.

“Four years ago, if we had taken the complaint seriously and addressed it in a very rapid manner, we may not be sitting here today,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said Wednesday. “What I’ve been brought here to do is do reform of this organization. It’s not an easy job. It’s a tough job, because we’re changing the culture in the Police Department as a whole.”

The agency instituted rules on the public’s right to film officers in 2012, but lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said they didn’t go far enough. The new Baltimore Police Department policy states that “members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record BPD members while BPD members are conducting official business ... unless such recordings interfere with police activity.”

The new policy also states that officers “shall allow all persons the same access for photography and recording as is given to the news media.”

The case centered on officers’ actions on May 15, 2010, at the Pimlico Race Course. There, Christopher Sharp said, officers violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights when they took his phone after the “arrest and beating” of his female friend.
Sharp, who was represented by the ACLU, sued the city, saying officers deleted videos on his phone.

“It took a long time, but ... the Baltimore Police Department became very serious about resolving this case,” Sharp said. “What happened was wrong, but the Police Department is not my enemy. They have made great strides to correct this.”

Last year, a federal judge rebuked police for engaging in a “veritable witch hunt” of Sharp and ordered the department to pay $1,000 for a “not so subtle attempt to intimidate the plaintiff.” According to court documents, the department contacted Sharp’s ex-wife and former employers for information on his personal life in an attempt to determine whether he “is a drug addict.”

Sharp said Wednesday he was still troubled by those actions. “I was really disturbed at the time -- still am -- about what happened.”

The First Amendment right to record police officers in public places has been in the news several times lately. Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson spoke out against officers’ actions last month when they clashed with a 21-year-old college student filming an arrest outside a Towson bar.

“The words and demands to cease filming by sworn personnel and citizen volunteer auxiliary officers were incorrect, inappropriate and unnecessary,” Johnson said.

Also last month, a Baltimore Sun photographer was pushed away while taking pictures at a crime scene at the intersection of Centre Street and Guilford Avenue in Baltimore. Baltimore police have launched an internal investigation, Batts said. “There’s always two sides to each story, so I will not take a position on that,” he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake weighed in on the issue Wednesday after the city’s Board of Estimates voted to approve the $250,000 payment.

“We’ve been clear that the public has a right to film,” she said.

Under the settlement agreement, Sharp will be paid $25,000. The rest will go to cover attorney fees accrued during the nearly four-year case.

“Originally, I asked for an apology. That was it,” he said.

He now has one. Sharp received a framed copy of an apology from Batts. “We would like to personally assure you that we are working tirelessly to regain your trust,” the letter says.

Copyright 2014 The Baltimore Sun