Police abuse in this country has been getting a lot of press lately, bringing out politically and emotionally charged arguments on both sides. Police and their supporters feel unable and unsafe doing their jobs as anti-cop sentiment is at an all-time high, while civilians, especially those of color, feel unsafe even walking down the street for fear a trigger happy cop will gun them down for no reason. The most often presented solution is for police to wear body cameras, as it would protect civilians from bad cops while also vindicating the good ones. But many police unions have fought back against this proposal, leading citizens to do the next best thing: record police encounters themselves.
Up until now, it has been regarded as an absolute right, even a duty, for people to record the police as long as they do not interfere with what they are doing at the time. Sadly, the police department in Philadelphia believes that their police should have carte blanche to do as they please with no accountability, as shown when they seized the cameras of two photographers during different incidents in the city.
The ability to record the police has been held as inherent to the First Amendment. However, U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney disagreed in his ruling, adding a huge caveat to that right in Fields v. City of Philadelphia. The caveat is that a photographer must be directly challenging the police action at the time in order to record the events.
Of course, when a citizen is passively recording police it becomes much less likely that they will run afoul of the rules regarding interfering with cops who are in action. The unfortunate (or perhaps designed) result of this ruling is that people who are recording police will now be forced to confront police, effectively making it illegal to record police at all.
The ruling will almost certainly be appealed, as it is pretty clearly in conflict with nearly every precedent set on the subject. When bad cops are not held accountable, it is a huge detriment not only to the public at large, but the good cops who can be stigmatized by those who abuse their power. Hopefully a more reasonable judge will set this clear violation of civil rights and responsibilities back to where it belongs — protection for all from abusive police.