Camera-shy cops go too far
Incident involving city filmmaker indicative of unfortunate trend
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/05/2009 (5068 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Cameras and cops.
They should be happy partners in crime-fighting.
But there appears to be a creeping trend in Canada that suggests otherwise. It involves police officers who overstep their authority by stepping all over our civil rights. In this case, by unlawfully seizing camera equipment belonging to media photographers or members of the public.
The common focus of these cameras is police doing their jobs — but not wanting it recorded.
Usually, cops being camera-shy happens at potentially controversial crime scenes such as police-involved shootings.
Police being fearful of being caught on camera in controversial circumstances is understandable.
But how does one explain what happened Wednesday at the scene of a backhoe driver digging a hole in the ground on Gertie Street?
"ö "ö "ö
John Paskievich, the respected Winnipeg photographer and filmmaker was standing on the sidewalk Wednesday morning, across the street from the hole in the ground, when police told him to stop videotaping them and the backhoe operator.
Or so he told me later that night.
John was there because the hole was being dug in preparation for the city to demolish the house by first cutting off the gas main that led to the property. As it happens, the run-down, soon-to-be-bulldozed house is owned by animator Ed Ackerman, the subject of a film that John’s been working on for the past year.
Anyway, John said when he refused to stop shooting video, the four young constables surrounded him and said he and his camera were intimidating the backhoe operator.
If anyone was feeling intimidated, it was John.
"I felt I was being violated," he told me.
Eventually, John said, the officers grabbed him and escorted him to a cruiser car. All the while, he kept asking what law he’d broken — and they weren’t giving him an answer.
Once inside the cruiser, John said police told him they were going to keep him there if he didn’t give up his camera.
Instead, they took the videotape out of the camera and told him he could drop by the Public Safety Building at 5 p.m. and pick it up — which he did.
He checked, and the footage he recorded was still there.
But what bothers me is this: John Paskievich was doing nothing wrong. He was in a public place, doing his job taking video.
Police in Vancouver seem to get that now.
Last month, Vancouver Province photographer Jason Payne had his camera seized by police at a cop-related shooting scene.
Payne says camera-shy police suffer from the "Robert Dziekanski syndrome," after the Polish immigrant, whose death at the hands of Vancouver airport RCMP in October 2007 only became the subject of a public inquiry because of a video taken by a member of the public.
In Payne’s case, Vancouver’s police chief wrote a letter of apology to the Vancouver Sun. He also issued a "refresher bulletin" to his officers instructing them on police policy about when they can and — more often — cannot seize camera equipment from members of the media or the public.
On Thursday, I called University of Manitoba law Prof. Karen Busby and related John’s version of events.
Busby said this: "Unless police can show some significant interest was being infringed — privacy, security or safety — they don’t have the right to stop somebody from making a film or taking a picture."
For John Paskievich, what happened to him in Winnipeg this week reminded him of the practice 30 years ago when police constantly told him to stop taking pictures.
However, that was in the former Soviet Union.
"ö "ö "ö
There’s a postscript to this story.
Two officers from the Winnipeg Police Service professional standards unit dropped by John’s house unannounced around 4 p.m. Thursday.
John said they asked him what he intended to do.
He said he might consult a lawyer.
John said they suggested he should have told his story to them first instead of the media.
Then they asked him if he wanted to come down to the Public Safety Building and give a statement.
Why there instead of right there in his home?
"They wanted to videotape it."
Of course they did.
Vancouver police policy
LAST month, Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu issued a written apology to the Vancouver Province for seizing the camera of staff photographer Jason Payne at a police-related shooting scene (above).
The Vancouver Police Service also issued a "refresher bulletin" to officers interpreting their authority to seize photographic equipment from citizens or media. An excerpt from the bulletin follows:
With the proliferation of video-surveillance equipment in public and private spaces, it has become standard investigative procedure to canvass for surveillance video that may contain images of evidentiary value. This evidence is often very powerful in providing an accurate record of an incident. Generally, this evidence is seized with consent, although occasionally a search warrant will be required.
Similarly, on some occasions, a citizen or media person will be at a crime scene and have captured still photographs or video of some portion of the actual incident. It is incumbent upon members to attempt to secure this evidence, which may be vital to determining the truth of what occurred. (There may be people who show up at the incident after the fact to take video/pictures. In most cases, there is no evidentiary need to seize such images.) However, there MUST be legal authority to seize such items.
Our legal authorities are as follows:
1. With consent
2. As an incident to lawful arrest
3. Under (section) 487.11 CCC (Criminal Code Of Canada) and Common Law authority, which allow for seizure of evidence without warrant if grounds for a warrant exist, but it would be impracticable for police to obtain one based on "exigent circumstances."
4. With a (section) 487 CCC search warrant Exigent circumstances usually arise where "immediate action" is required for the "safety of the police or public" or to "secure and preserve evidence" of a crime. Other cases describe exigent circumstances as circumstances making seizure without warrant "necessary to prevent the imminent loss or imminent destruction of the evidence."
–courtesy Vancouver Province