Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Outcome of Abusive Officer Emphasizes the Importance of Videotaping and Reporting Police Activity


from the filming-police-is-a-good-thing dept

In the last couple years we've had a bunch of stories about people arrested for filming police. While it seems that more and more courts are recognizing that such filming is protected activity, there have been a few bizarre moments, including famed appeals court judge Richard Posner complaining about how allowing such filming would mean that it would actually happen.

But, as we've seen over and over again, filming police is one of the few ways to prove abuse of police power. Back in the summer of 2007, a police officer named Salvatore Rivieri in Baltimore decided to use his position to harass some skateboarding kids in Baltimore's Inner Harbor area. As part of his harassment, he took one kid's skateboard after throwing him to the ground and screaming at him. The whole thing was videotaped by another kid... and it was uploaded to YouTube a few months later:

At the very end, you hear the officer starting to ask if he's being filmed -- and notes "if I find myself on...." Given his earlier harangue, it sure sounds like he's about to warn the other kids about putting the video online, though we don't know exactly what was said. Either way, the video went online (eventually, months after the incident) and it got quite a lot of attention.

As a result of the massive publicity storm from the video going up online, Rivieri was suspended (with pay) a few days after the video went up in early 2008. More than two years later, a disciplinary panel cleared Rivieri of the most serious charges ("using excessive and unnecessary force" and "uttering discourtesies") but guilty of failing to file a report about the incident or provide the kid with a "contact receipt." The board recommended a short suspension. Instead, the police commissioner fired Rivieri, arguing that "his ability to interact effectively with the citizens of Baltimore has been seriously compromised."

Last week, a Maryland state appeals court upheld the firing (pdf and embedded below -- thanks to Eric Goldman for alerting us to the story), agreeing that the commissioner had the right to fire Rivieri.

What's most interesting in all of this, however, is that none of this would have happened if the incident hadn't been filmed and subsequently posted online. In fact, absolutely nothing did happen for many months until the video was posted online. Rather than causing problems, this video seems to have done exactly what many defenders of filming police have said all along: helped to display and call attention to abuse of power by the police, in a way that not only punishes those who did the abuse, but also which will alert other law enforcement officials to obey the limits of their profession. Judge Posner may regret that police can be filmed, but it certainly seems like a good way to keep police from engaging in the kind of harassment that they have been able to get away with for years.

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