“Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you!”

Dr. Q

“Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you!”

Those are the words that UMass Lowell student Brendan Brown heard shortly after he trained his cell phone camera on several campus police officers last Saturday.

Brown told me that he was leaving a friend’s house when he noticed a “big brawl” taking place outside an apartment. When police appeared on the scene to break up the fight, Brown stood a reasonable distance away from the action, took out his cell phone, and began documenting the activity. In less than a minute, the officers turned to face Brown and one asked him, “You all set over there with the camera?”

“Yeah, I’m all set,” Brown responded.

“Yeah, who are you?” the officer asked.

While Brown explained to the police that he was merely observing what was going on, an officer began walking toward him. That’s when the officer threatened to assault Brown.

After being threatened by the officer, Brown decided to comply with his demand “rather than to be possibly beat up and thrown in jail.”

In the case Commonwealth v. Hyde, a musician’s felony wiretapping conviction was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court after he recorded police during a traffic stop, however, Hyde’s conviction stemmed from the fact that he made a secret audio-recording of police with a hidden tape recorder.

Openly recording police officers — like Brown was doing — is not a crime. As the SJC observed in Hyde, Hyde’s arrest and conviction “could have been avoided if, at the outset of the traffic stop, [he] had simply informed the police of his intention to tape record the encounter, or even held the tape recorder in plain sight. Had he done so, his recording would not have been secret, and so would not have violated” the wiretapping statute.

More recently, a federal appeals court ruled that openly recording police officers in Massachusetts is an activity that is protected by the First Amendment and police officers may be sued for interfering with people who record them.

In fact, it’s legal to audio and video-record police virtually everywhere in the United States. The only major exception is the state of Illinois which currently has an “eavesdropping” law that criminalizes even openly audio-recording one’s own interactions with police officers without their consent. Despite the fact that recording police is generally legal, there have been hundreds of documented cases of police harassing, threatening, assaulting, and even arresting people for recording police activity in recent years.

But just because it’s become all too common for police to interfere (oftentimes violently) with people who record them does not mean that it’s acceptable. The officer who threatened Brown wasn’t simply disrespectful or unprofessional. What he did is a crime and he deserves to face consequences for it.

That officer deserves to lose his job. No person who believes he has the right to threaten to assault other individuals for something that is not only legal, but is protected by the First Amendment, has any business being a police officer. When you commit a serious crime like threatening someone without provocation, you don’t deserve a second chance with the badge.

The officer in the video should also be facing criminal charges. If Brown had approached a police officer and threatened to hit him, you can bet he would have ended up in jail. Police officers who make criminal threats don’t deserve to be treated any differently.

Brown agrees that his rights were violated, but told me that he has no plans to seek accountability from the campus police over the incident because he was unable to identify the officer who threatened him.

“If I had correctly identified the officer who made the threat, I would want him to be held entirely accountable and face whatever repercussions are given for this type of behavior. However since that is not the case, the awareness brought by this video is satisfying enough for people and especially UMass Lowell students to know what is going on and how business is being conducted by these public servants,” he told me.

However, Brown did say that the school’s student trustee, whom he described as a good friend, was aware of the video and was considering discussing it with the UMass Lowell Police Chief.

I decided that before I publish anything about the video, it would be fair to get a comment from the UMass Lowell Police Department so I sent in an email that included a link to the video and some related questions. I quickly received a response from UMass Lowell Police Chief Randolph E. Brashears.

Chief Brashears did not respond to any of my questions, but assured me that his department “take[s] citizen complaints seriously.” Though he did not comment on the department’s policy with respect to recording police activity, he did say that “The students involved have nothing to fear from our agency as I did not see any violations of the law on their part from the short video clip.” He said he will get back to me when he finishes investigating the incident.

I suggest contacting the UMass Lowell Police Department to let them know that the behavior of the officer in the video is unacceptable. You can contact the department on their non-emergency phone line at 978-934-2398. You can email the department at police@uml.edu or you can email Chief Brashears directly at Randolph_Brashears@uml.edu.

I will post an update on this case as soon as more information becomes available.

Update (10/17/2011): The Lowell Sun, a Lowell-based newspaper, picked up this story. You can read their coverage here.


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