The Continued Rise of Citizen Reporters

This isn’t  exactly a new trend, as demonstrated by the deal reached in April between the Associated Press and a Swedish live streaming start-up.

But this NY Times story about a shooting incident over the weekend is further evidence of the development. Police chased a knife-wielding man near Times Square Saturday afternoon after approaching him under the impression he was smoking marijuana; upon the man allegedly lunging towards officers with the weapon, the police fatally shot him.

Amid the altercation, bystanders realized what was going on in front of them and readied their cell phones to record the affair:

 The man pulled out a knife, and the officers pulled out their guns.

“And that’s when I started taking photos,” Mr. Rocha said.

Other visitors and New York residents joined in, including Jeffrey Gibson, 39, of Richville, N.Y., whose video captured the pursuit, along with a frighteningly prescient warning shouted by another bystander: “They’re going to shoot you, boy.”

Recordings of this nature can do a lot of good for law enforcement, for potential criminal defendants, and the legal system more generally.  These recordings also add depth to news coverage and promote a better understanding of how law enforcement policies play out in local communities.

But it can be difficult for video to reach the Internet when police stop people from recording or attempt to seize the video or photographs, as was the case here:

Julian Miller, 22, who was visiting New York from Boston, said the police confiscated his phone after he recorded video of the confrontation. He said in an interview that he followed the pursuit from Times Square to 37th Street and Seventh Avenue, his phone recording as he ran to keep up. He said a police detective pulled him aside after the shooting and asked to see his phone and the video.

“His eyes got big when he saw the video,” Mr. Miller said, adding that he had captured the shooting on video. “He went to go show his boss, and then they took my phone away.” He said the officer told him not to speak with the news media.

Timothy B. Lee at Ars Technica recently wrote about one city in which that interference should be subsiding – Washington DC:

In a new legal directive first noticed by DCist, Washington DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier explains the constitutional rights of DC citizens and gives her officers detailed instructions for respecting them. She addresses a number of scenarios that have led to controversy in recent years.

Importantly, the directive states that “in areas open to the public, members shall allow bystanders the same access for photography as is given to members of the news media.” The directive also provides that officers shall not order individuals to stop recording or demand identification of them.

The ubiquity of smart mobile devices enables average citizens to play a crucial role in keeping the public informed and holding the public officials accountable. Other cities should follow Washington DC’s example and provide their law enforcement personnel with clear guidelines on not interfering with wholly legal activities.

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