Examiner Editorial: Watching the watchmen is not a crime 

Traffic cameras watch your speed, security cameras watch your comings and goings, but is anyone watching the police? Police in Maryland, Michigan and elsewhere would rather you didn’t — particularly not on YouTube. Just last Saturday, Yvonne Nicole Shaw, 27, was arrested in Lexington Park, Md., for recording deputies in her apartment complex responding to a noise complaint.

Sheriff’s Cpl. Patrick Handy’s report explained the arrest: Shaw “did admit to recording our encounter on her cell phone for the purpose of trying to show the police are harassing people.” This sounds like she was more of a threat to the jobs of public safety officers than to public safety itself. One is not the same as the other.

Another recent example of contempt for the average camera-wielding citizen in Maryland: Anthony Graber’s home was raided by police, after which he was arrested and jailed, charged with violating Maryland’s wiretapping statute. What did he do? He posted video of a traffic stop during which a Maryland state trooper drew his firearm. For this offense, Graber faces five years in prison.

Reason magazine’s Radley Balko notes that in 2000, Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran, Jr. issued an opinion on whether a plan by the Montgomery County Police Department to install recording devices on patrol officers would violate the wiretapping law. He said that even if an officer inadvertently recorded someone without informing him first, it [was still legal]. Curran wrote that any conversation between a driver pulled over by a uniformed police officer “is difficult to characterize” as “private.”

But Maryland is hardly the only state where watching the police is unwelcome. Several missionaries in Dearborn, Mich., were passing out copies of the Gospel of John from the New Testament to the Dearborn Arab International Festival when they were confronted and arrested by police within three minutes of arriving. Their offense wasn’t merely exposing Muslims to Christian literature — they were also recording police activity on a handheld camera. When one of the policemen noticed a cameraman monitoring the encounter, he approached and told him to turn it off.

In the line of duty, officers of the law encounter many threats, no doubt. But a citizen who knows his rights and owns a camera is not such a threat. As the Roman poet Juvenal asked, “Who watches the watchmen?” We do, and should.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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