Share this article

print logo

Reaffirming citizen rights to film police

It was not long before the last presidential election that Mickey Osterreicher realized he couldn’t just teach citizens their rights. He had to talk to police, too.

Once a photojournalist for the Courier-Express and then, after the newspaper closed, WKBW-TV, Osterreicher now makes his living as a lawyer helping photographers protect their First Amendment rights.

It keeps him awfully busy.

What he calls a “perfect storm” of the proliferation of cellphone cameras and technology that allows anyone to reach millions of people has made it more important than ever for citizens to understand their rights when it comes to filming the police.

But it’s not just citizens and photographers that need to know the law. Hoping to avoid what happened at the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions, where dozens of reporters and photographers were arrested while covering protests, Osterreicher started offering training for police to explain that citizens are allowed to take pictures in public – including of police at work. “I kind of soon realized that it really didn’t make much difference if people knew what their rights were if the police didn’t know or didn’t care what those rights were,” said Osterreicher, counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

These days, he hears stories almost daily of citizens being interfered with or arrested for exercising their right to photograph or record in a public place. Some are simply taking pictures of buildings. Others are filming police.

The Buffalo-based attorney was in Ferguson, Mo., last summer to help photographers who were arrested while covering protests. Last week, he was in Chicago to work with law enforcement trainers from across the country to explain the rights of citizens to take photos or video in public places.

“That doesn’t mean you can interfere. It doesn’t mean you can trespass and go somewhere where you’re not allowed to be just because you have a camera,” Osterreicher said. “But if you’re out in a public place, then you have a right to observe something. You also have a right to photograph it and record it.”

That’s exactly what a citizen was doing in South Carolina earlier this month when he captured terrifying video of a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man in the back as he ran away.

The video swiftly led to the arrest of the officer and changed the national discussion on race and police.

It almost didn’t get out. The witness who took the cellphone video on his way to work, Feidin Santana, has said he thought about erasing it because he feared for his own life.

Santana was a hero when he took the video and when he turned it over to the victim’s family.

Police dashboard cams have been in cars for years. Departments across the country are getting body cams. But cellphone cameras have given everyday citizens the power to watch back.

That helps everybody.

“The point is, the video is neutral,” Osterreicher said. “It’s just a camera. It just records whatever is in front of it.” In other words, it can catch officers acting wrongly, but it can also prove they’ve acted professionally.

Never has it been more essential for everybody – photographers and police – to know the rights of citizens.