The MPD's Problem with Cameras
As you can read in multiple news media outlets - City Pages, the Pioneer Press, WCCO and more - a Minneapolis police officer significantly damaged a KSTP television camera at Saturday's mass arrests of Occupy movement participants.
There's video of this incident. According to the cameraman, he received no verbal warning from the officer before being shoved backward and having his camera thrown to the ground.
Police Chief Dolan has released a statement: "The Minneapolis Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit is in the process of reviewing the incident involving a KSTP cameraman Chad Nelson last Saturday evening. We instructed all of our officers before this, and any demonstration, to not take individual actions unless they are warranted for personal safety. From my preliminary review of the video regarding Mr. Nelson, the officer's interference does not appear to be necessary. If that is the case, I am very disappointed."
This sounds good. Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of MPD officers breaking cameras, targeting people using cameras for enforcement, or confiscating cameras and other recording devices. Similar incidents occurred during the weeks before and during the Republican National Convention, and on more than one occasion during Critical Mass events. Many of these incidents were similarly caught on camera. The only major difference between this incident and some of the others that have occurred in the recent past is that the victim of the MPD action is a cameraman for an established mainstream media outlet, rather than an individual or blogger.
It is unclear from Chief Dolan's statement whether the MPD has a clear, formal policy on how to interact with people who are filming police actions in a non-threatening, non-obstructive way. It is increasingly and disturbingly clear, however, that there is a de facto practice and culture within MPD that it is common and acceptable to harass people with cameras.
That's a problem. It is not illegal to film a police officer in a public place engaging in an enforcement action. In fact, from the perspective of a City Council Member, it is helpful. Well beyond that, the US Constitution enshrines the freedom of the press, and police officers targeting people with recording devices have a direct chilling effect on those who would record police actions. If our officers are doing their jobs professionally and well, they have nothing to fear from having their actions recorded, so harassing people with cameras sends a clear message that officers feel they have something to hide.
I have begun talking to my colleagues about how we can have a discussion about the MPD's policy on interacting with people with cameras, because whatever it is, it's not working. I would prefer to have this discussion in public, at the Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health committee.