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THIS IS THE POLICE. DROP THE CAMERA: Illinois’ Eavesdropping Law Turns Smart-Phone Owners Into Felons - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Larry McDonald   
Thursday, 09 June 2011 05:47

Inhibiting an Already Dangerous Job?

Unsurprisingly, the police are neither neutral nor silent on the matter. The president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, Mark Donahue, told the Chicago Tribune that citizen recording of arrests “could potentially inhibit an officer from proactively doing his job.”

In a story on KWQC about the Galesburg eavesdropping arrests, Captain Rodney Riggs was quoted as saying that recording was “a hindrance. Following the police officers around, it’s two in the morning, we have officers trying to do their jobs, and at times, we have to take action to get our job done.”

In an article in USA Today, Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director Jim Pasco said the recording of police has created a “chilling effect” on officers: “The proliferation of cheap video equipment is presenting a whole new dynamic for law enforcement. It has had a chilling effect on some officers who are now afraid to act for fear of retribution by video. This has become a serious safety issue. I’m afraid something terrible will happen.”

And in a commentary in USA Today, Dennis J. Slocumb and Rich Robert (of the International Union of Police Associations) said recording of police activity puts additional burdens on a job that’s already dangerous: “Policing is a job full of extraordinary risks. Officers have no choice but to make decisions based upon split-second determinations coupled with their training and experience. Out of approximately 400,000 men and women who regularly patrol the streets and highways (we are not counting an additional 400,000 who have purely administrative assignments), an average of 160 will be killed, 60,000 will be physically assaulted, and 20,000 will receive serious injuries in the line of duty every year.”

For those such as Donahue who say citizen recording can “inhibit” officers: That’s a small price to pay. Important jobs need to be monitored. Airline pilots live with flight-data- and voice-recorder black boxes, ensuring that every little mistake they make will live on, regardless of whether they or their passengers do. Today’s vehicles constantly monitor the behavior of commercial truckers. Surgeons have jobs in which they make life-and-death decisions, and mistakes could cost them millions. Guess what: They’re being recorded. I don’t see representatives of any of those groups attempting an argument that video-recording inhibits their ability to do their jobs well.

As for the argument that law enforcement is a dangerous job: It is, but perhaps not as much as most people think. Danger-wise, police are in the queue behind farmers, ranchers, and sheepherders, and are far below fishermen.

As Forbes said in a 2011 article on “America’s Most Dangerous Jobs”: “Miners and police officers face many dangers. In 2009, the most recent year for which we have statistics, 101 miners and 97 police officers and security guards died on the job, making for a roughly similar fatality rate of around 13 deaths per 100,000 workers.

“But neither cracks the top 10 on our list of America’s Most Dangerous Jobs. Going by fatality rates, workers have more to worry about in such seemingly mundane professions as roofing, farming, and sanitation.”

Firefighting is more dangerous than police work, but I don’t believe I have ever seen a firefighter come out from a burning building and demand the news crew turn off the cameras.

Statistically, being an airline pilot is much more dangerous than being a police officer. Being a trucker is more dangerous than being a cop. Again, those last two jobs face constant monitoring.

And nobody is claiming that recording normal police work makes cops’ jobs more dangerous.

Other police defenses of the eavesdropping law are contradictory. In the same story in which Riggs said citizen recording was a “hindrance,” he added: “I always tell my officers: If you’re doing the right thing, there is no problem with being recorded.”

And some are just bizarre. In an article in the Peoria Journal Star, Captain Dave Briggs of the Peoria County sheriff’s department defended the law as protecting the privacy of people being questioned by police: “Sometimes even suspects have things they want to say to an officer – and it shouldn’t be out on YouTube.” But in the situation at hand, it was the suspect himself who was recording: Rodney Anderson Jr. recorded his arrest on his phone following a March 27 domestic disturbance.

Quad Cities law-enforcement officials defended the eavesdropping law by saying that police are subject to many of the same requirements as the public. However, their responses glossed over the law-enforcement exemptions.

East Moline Police Chief Victor M. Moreno wrote: “Police are also restricted from using eavesdropping without a court order during undercover operations.”

Rock Island Police Chief Scott D. Harris at least acknowledged the exemptions in his e-mail response, although he, too, noted that undercover operations are restricted: “An undercover officer would have to get a court order for an eavesdrop, although there are some exceptions, such as in the case of a traffic stop in which the stop is recorded.”

Rock Island County Sheriff Jeff Boyd initially said police are forbidden from eavesdropping without a court order, but when asked about exemptions for law enforcement, he said that police recordings – such as from traffic stops – are available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. “All of that is available publicly” he said. “The accessibility is there.”

Boyd said that Illinois’ eavesdropping law makes undercover drug operations more difficult. Because a legal recording in Iowa requires the consent of only one party to a conversation, he said, it’s easier for undercover officers to make drug buys in Iowa. For that reason, he said, he would support changing Illinois’ law to single-party consent – which would give citizens the right to record their own interactions with police. Boyd said he would have no problem with legalized citizen recording “as long as that person was not interfering. ... If that’s the law, I’m good with it.”

However, all three law-enforcement leaders who responded to our questions said that recording of operations could cause problems for officers.

Harris wrote: “Depending on the type and length of the police operation and with today’s technology, it could severely hamper an operation or officer’s safety. With our current cell-phone technology, video can be sent and posted immediately showing a situation as it evolves, which would include location and number of officers, type of equipment being used or brought in, the tactics being used or contemplated by the officer, etc.”

“Recording police tactics or operations can give the public insight and access to the way police approach or plan,” Moreno wrote. “Having that info can allow criminals to prepare to respond, therefore creating danger for the officers.”

Harris cited one example: “While I am not aware of a citizen’s video endangering or hampering an officer, there was a situation in which a hostage situation was developing and some television cameras were inadvertently showing the location of perimeter officers and other personnel who were approaching the location towards a blind spot from the suspect for concealment. Once the camera crew was made aware of the hazard they were potentially creating for the officers, they changed the camera’s field of view, filming other areas which allowed the officers to continue on with their task. In addition, the camera crews were initially in danger as well and relocated to a safer area.”

While it’s undoubtedly true that the recording of a hostage situation or major law-enforcement operation could be problematic, those rare instances could be handled – gently and tactfully – on a case-by-case basis. However, most of the time, and especially in the Illinois cases where citizens are facing a Class 1 felony sentence, people are recording commonplace police work, with no effect on officers’ job performance.