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If Filming Cops is ‘Interference,’ It’s the Least We Can Do

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton offers a vile defense of officers caught on camera brutalizing and killing civilians.
Photo by John Minchillo/AP

In response to the surfacing of videos and pictures in recent weeks of New York Police Department officers choking a man to death, stomping on a suspect's head, and putting a pregnant woman in an apparent chokehold, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has, it seems, made a bizarre appeal to quantum physical interactions.

In what could be seen as bizarre deference to the "observer effect," Bratton commented that bystanders recording brutal police behavior constitutes "interference."


Well, that's one absurdist reading. A more parsimonious analysis of Bratton's comments to the press on Monday sees the top cop scrambling to defend the indefensible in the face of insurmountable evidence.

Police brutality is nothing new. Nor indeed is the filming of cops a particularly novel phenomenon: cell phone footage of BART officer Johannes Mehrserle summarily executing Oscar Grant in Oakland was the trigger for riots five years ago.

But there is something particularly vile about Bratton's response to the recent NYPD brutality scandals, notably Eric Garner's death, caught on camera. We are well accustomed to police impunity — Garner's killers remain on the force, albeit on desk duty. But the commissioner went so far as to put blame for this unmitigated brutality perpetrated by the city's sanctioned armed thugs on the citizen observers trying in some small way to hold police accountable.

"There is no denying on the videos which have surfaced… what is seen is interference on the part of onlookers — maybe relatives and friends, people in general — who shouldn't be interfering," said Bratton. "That interference certainly exacerbates the situation, raising the officers' tension… that is of concern."

Bratton has a point: "interference" by onlookers — the recorded observations which then garner viral attention and outrage — does obstruct certain police activities. These onlookers interfere with the all-too-common police practice of putting forward accounts of events that deny any sort of police wrongdoing. Cop accounts of events that first asserted that victims like Ramarley Graham — the Bronx teenager shot dead by police in 2012 — were armed, when they were not, are challenged by witness testimony. When there is video, deceptive police narratives are untenable. Claims that Staten Island police did not put Eric Garner in an illegal choke-hold are hard to maintain in the face of video evidence.

Bratton's remarks reflect a troubling desire to assert the legitimacy of police violence under any circumstance. If shining a light on police brutality counts as "interference," one hopes that this pattern of interfering with police activity continues and proliferates. In the First Circuit District, a federal judge ruled in May that filming cops is protected by the First Amendment (a ruling that covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island).

In New York, a student at the School of Visual Arts filed (and won) a case against the NYPD after he was arrested in 2013 for filming the exterior of the NYPD’s 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn. His suit named nine other instances of New York police arresting individuals for filming their activity. In favor of the plaintiff, the district court ruled that while police were permitted to request onlookers to stop filming them, they are not sanctioned to interfere with the recording. The caveat that serves police interests, however, is that filming is not permitted if it "obstructs police business." But that is for the police to argue and for a court to decide.

Far be it from me to suggest that the law will not unjustly side with police in these instances. I simply submit that, even if the cops claim "obstruction" or "interference," threatening filming observers with arrests and charges, the alternative is to avoid collecting evidence of police brutality. The consequences of unchecked NYPD violences can be fatal — this we know. "Interference" through capturing and spreading recorded evidence is the least we can do.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard