I swear I read more than just The Atlantic‘s website. But they have caught my eye for the second time in as many days. This time, it was their story on recording encounters with police officers. They spoke to Rich Jones about his website OpenWatch.net. Jones has developed several apps for the iPhone and Android platforms. The purpose is simple: record audio and video of police encounters and submit it directly to OpenWatch’s gallery of recordings.
Some states require all participants in a conversation to consent to any recording, and using the apps in those states may be a felony. I wish I had the free time to research whether those who merely post such recordings are in the clear, but I don’t. Let’s hope, for Jones’ sake, that there’s nothing on the books in Massachusetts or in federal law prohibiting him from posting this stuff. There isn’t much on the site yet because many of the submissions aren’t post-worthy, and Jones tries to anonymize everything he does decide to put up.
OpenWatch.net is fascinating in and of itself, but it illustrates a broader trend: citizen surveillance of authority figures. Police cruisers have been outfitted with dashboard cameras for a while, and they often aid in both reducing or punishing police corruption and catching criminals in the act. The United Kingdom uses closed-circuit television in an attempt to reduce crime in certain areas, but recent installations at schools have some concerned about privacy and dignity. The proliferation of citizen recordings, on the other hand, is a full reversal of the Big Brother concept, and it’s not new. But the ease of anonymity in a networked world and the proliferation of pocket-sized recording devices make such surveillance simpler than ever. Even as a lowly law student, I know that many of the traffic stop anecdotes I hear from friends include unknowing surrender of all sorts of rights.
The Las Vegas Review Journal wrote in April about an incident in which a man filming an unrelated arrest was allegedly beaten by an officer when he refused to turn off his video camera. But altercations like that one are increasingly unlikely as covert recording via smartphones makes detection difficult. Law enforcement institutions may want to read up on a patent application filed by Apple that could use infrared to disable recording devices at live concerts to prevent piracy. The technology would have similar uses where recording without the consent of all parties is illegal (and even, it’s important to note, where it’s not).
For now, it’s clear that authority figures may need to act like they may be recorded at any time if they want to avoid being caught on audio or video doing something that even appears to be unethical. The fact is that whether or not use of force is truly warranted, lack of proper warning and the overuse of sarcasm (like the officer in the Review Journal story) can go a long way toward eroding popular confidence in our police officers. I don’t envy them, but if you’re not proud to show other people how you do your job, you may be doing it wrong.
Image via OpenWatch.