An article in the New York Times outlines several cases in which people are being prosecuted under “eavesdropping” laws for recording interactions with the police. One is an instance where the person — an eighteen year old woman — was allegedly being sexually harassed by an officer who was there to sort out a domestic abuse situation in which she involved. Since some jurisdictions make it a crime to record conversations without the knowledge of everyone involved, it seems that those who do the recording, while trying to protect themselves, are running afoul of the law.
In Chicago, “although law-enforcement officials can legally record civilians in private or public, audio-recording a law-enforcement officer, state’s attorney, assistant state’s attorney, attorney general, assistant attorney general or judge in the performance of his or her duties is a Class 1 felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison”
One would think that the police would be a special case, and that protecting someone from abuse of power is a compelling interest. In Chicago, the centerpiece of the article, there is an exception when “citizens have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a crime is about to be committed against them, they may obtain evidence by recording it.” However, what is most philosophically interesting is the comment made by the president of the Fraternal Order of Police whose organization “absolutely supports” banning of secret recordings. He said, that “allowing the audio recording of police officers while performing their duty ‘can affect how an officer does his job on the street.'”
He is right, of course, but isn’t this the point? Isn’t the purpose of recording these incidents to make sure that the police officer acts according to the law, follows procedures to the tee, and treats those he or she interact with as they should. And, it goes both ways. The New York State police record most of their traffic stops and this protects the Troopers against lies and accusations as well.
On the flip side, a police officer does not cease to be a person and does not cease to have the protections that he or she would have in normal life. The police deserve a certain amount of protection and privacy and if eavesdropping laws are meant to apply to everyone, it ought to apply to them also. Furthermore, as we all know, recordings make their way onto the internet all the time. A police officer could be made famous because of an accident or a misleading tape. Investigations might be compromised. Media frenzies could interfere with public safety.
So, which is it? Should people (and the police) be permitted to record interactions or do the privacy issues outweigh the advantages? Furthermore, ought the police be allowed a little leeway to “bend” the laws and procedures in the name of public safety, a flexibility that recording would prohibit? What do you think?