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Yes, It's Legal To Film The Cops -- And What's Been Filmed In Recent Months Is Appalling

Christopher Mathias

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Oct. 13, 2014

NEW YORK -- It's becoming clearer and clearer that smartphones have ushered in a new era of police accountability. Since mid-July, when a bystander on Staten Island filmed the death of Eric Garner in a prohibited police chokehold, at least eight other unsettling videos, most of them captured by smartphone, have emerged showing instances of apparent excessive force by NYPD officers. Four such videos have appeared this month alone.

Although police might intimidate bystanders into thinking otherwise, it's perfectly legal to film the cops -- not only in New York, but everywhere in the U.S. -- as long as you don't get in their way. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, encourages people to keep using their phones to film troubling police incidents. The more people who post these videos online, she said, the more likely it is that other people will reach for their own phones when they see cops doing something questionable.

"When police wrongdoing is captured on videotape, it makes the public understand what has happened and why we need to hold the police accountable, and that we need changes in the way police do business," Lieberman told The Huffington Post.

"Nobody would have believed what happened to Rodney King if it hadn't been caught on videotape," she added, referring to the man who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles cops in 1991, leading to months of protests. "The same is true for Eric Garner."

Lieberman also argued that the modern-day proliferation of video is actually good news for police officers.

"It's ready-made training material, and sometimes it's a ready-made defense against wrongful accusation," she said. "It should protect good cops and hold accountable those cops who fundamentally disrespect the rights and laws they're supposed to protect."

On July 17, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner, a father of six and grandfather of two, in a chokehold during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. Bystander Ramsey Orta filmed the arrest. The video shows Garner, who had asthma, repeatedly screaming "I can't breathe!" before his body goes limp.

"Twenty years ago, Ernest Sayon, right in that same district, died," the Rev. Al Sharpton later said at Garner's funeral, referring to another Staten Island man who died at the hands of the NYPD in 1994. "We marched then. But there's a difference this time. This time, there was a video!"

That video, and the others that have emerged since, have raised serious questions about what's going on at the NYPD -- such as:

Why are officers still using chokeholds to apprehend suspects, even though the maneuver is prohibited by the NYPD patrol guide?

On July 14, Ronald Johns, 22, allegedly entered a New York subway station without paying a fare. When he resisted arrest, cops pepper-sprayed him and put him in a chokehold: