Dick Hammerstrom, a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star, is an advocate for open government and serves on  several statewide organizations that urge transparency. You can email him at

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It’s perfectly legal to film police doing their job

It’s not against the law to take photographs or videotape police officers doing their job in public.

It’s legal in New York City, Virginia, Washington and even in Ferguson, Mo.

And it doesn’t make any difference if the photographer is a professional photojournalist or a 14-year-old with a smartphone.

Police, of all people, should not find cameras offensive. Cameras are part of their lives.

After all, most police cars now are equipped to film incidents that happen during a patrol shift and an increasing number of officers are even wearing small cameras on their uniforms.

A popular cable TV show, “Cops,” has been showing officers making arrests and confronting lawbreakers for years.

So I found it troubling Wednesday to watch video of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., demand a Washington Post reporter  cease videotaping him in a McDonalds restaurant.

Officers confronted Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly in the restaurant, where the journalists had gone to charge their phones and take advantage of the eatery’s free wifi.

Lowery managed to film most of his arrest by an officer in combat dress.

He was roughed up, as was Reilly. Both were handcuffed and taken to jail. They were released later without any charges being filed nor any explanation given on why they were taken into custody.

There were many other reports of police telling photographers to stop filming.

Journalists are in Ferguson for the same reason police are—because of the unrest caused by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a city police officer.

Videotapes have not been friendly to police in recent weeks.

A motorist captured footage of a California highway patrolman on top of a woman along a highway exit repeatedly hitting her in the face.

And a few weeks later in Staten Island, a man videotaped New York City officers wrestling down a man accused of selling a few untaxed cigarettes. The man died of  “compression of his neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” according to the medical examiner’s office.

Despite that, a memo was sent to all New York officers reminding them that they can’t interfere with anyone filming them. It said:

“Members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions. Intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment.”

In Virginia, and the Fredericksburg area, police and photojournalists seem to to have a mutual respect for the job each has and disagreements have been rare.

But in another Virginia area, a recent incident was caught on film, this one in Petersburg. It was broadcast by Richmond TV station WRIC.

A young man was filming from the front porch of his house the police making an arrest on the street. An officer, joined by two others, went onto the porch in an attempt to forcefully take the cellphone from the young man. A neighbor, apparently unseen by police, filmed the episode.

Photojournalists, and others for that matter, should not get in the way of police operations at the scene of an emergency.

Most journalists know what they can—and can’t do—at an emergency scene.

Virginia’s legislature even gives journalists legal standing to be at such incidents.

In the Virginia code section (15.2-1714) authorizing police and others to establish police lines or barricades at crime scenes or other such incidents, it specifically says it does not apply to the media:

“Personnel from information services such as press, radio and television, when gathering news, shall be exempt from the provisions of this section except that it shall be unlawful for such persons to obstruct the police, firemen and rescue workers in the performance of their duties at such scene. Such personnel shall proceed at their own risk.”

Though this law gives rights to journalists, the right to film police in public belongs to anyone with a camera.


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