TAMPA, Fla. — It’s far from a new trend. In fact, bystander video capturing police interacting with the public is now the norm and even considered a critical tool in the battle to weed out bad cops. This was on display during the arrest and death of George Floyd.
But a recent Florida appellate court ruling against a mom who recorded the arrest of her teenage son is raising questions over when filming can land you in jail. Some top cops in the state are also expressing concern the ruling could have unintended consequences as the police move to restore public trust.
“This is a big setback in my opinion,” said Riviera Beach Police Chief Nathan Osgood. “Now you’re saying, hey we don’t want you recording us. That’s what a lot of people will take out of this.”
The incident took place in Boynton Beach, 2009. City police called Sharron Tasha Ford after her teenage son tried to sneak into a movie theater. Ford showed up to the scene with a digital camera and started recording right away.
But police told her it was illegal to record audio and video of police doing their jobs. They asked her, repeatedly, to stop recording. Ford falsely told them she stopped recording, according to court records. Ford also refused to answer some questions about her address.
As the more than 14 minutes of video shows, as the interaction continued the interaction between Ford and the cops became more confrontational but never physical. In the end, Ford was arrested for intercepting oral communication and obstruction without violence also known as interfering with police doing their job.
While her criminal charges were dropped, Ford filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city but lost the case on appeal last week. Of the three judges who heard the case, one strongly opposed Ford’s arrest and any notion that the officers had a right to privacy while performing their duties in public.
In the sole dissenting opinion, Judge Martha Warner of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Palm Beach County stated in part:
A rule otherwise would mean that everyone who pulls out a cell phone to record an interaction with police, whether as a bystander, a witness, or a suspect, is committing a crime. Given how important cell phone videos have been for police accountability across the nation, I do not believe that society is ready to recognize that the recording of those interactions, which include audio recordings, are somehow subject to the officer’s right of privacy. If that were the case, then had the individual who recorded George Floyd saying to the officers “I can’t breathe” been in Florida, he would have been guilty of a crime.
Chief Osgood is concerned the ruling against Ford sends the wrong message.
“We’re pushing for police reform, police accountability. The whole public, everybody is pushing for it. Then all of a sudden something like this comes about, it says just the opposite of what we’re doing,” Osgood said.
Recording police is legal and, often, encouraged by law enforcement agencies. But obstruction remains a gray area, at the discretion of police who make the arrest before it goes to the State Attorneys Office who decides whether or not to file formal charges.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said obstruction while recording police can be confusing and controversial. If one of his officers makes an arrest for obstruction while recording, he wants to know the details.
“Tell me more facts before you put someone in jail for recording you on the side of the street,” Holloway said.
Some states have taken legislative steps to clarify what interfering or obstructing police means. Martin County Sheriff Major John Budenseik said if often boils down to a matter of distance.
“Had she stood off to the side and simply videotaped what was taking place, there would have been no problems,” he said.
Boynton Beach Chief Michael Gregory now leads the department at the center of the controversial ruling. He was not with the department 12 years ago when the incident took place. Gregory, who said he has seen the video, would not respond when asked how he would react to a similar incident today.
“I can’t speculate on exactly what I would think,” Chief Gregory said. But the chief said Ford was not an innocent bystander.
“She didn’t just take out her phone to record something that she saw other people involved in,” Gregory said. “Ms. Ford, in this case, was actually a participant in the incident so there was a different standard for her and her behavior than someone who was just passing by.”
Gregory, who is black, does not believe the ruling changes the department’s ongoing mission to improve relations with the public, be transparent and hold its officers accountable with or without cameras rolling.
“If you’re actually obstructing, resisting, or trying to oppose that investigation then you’re violating the law and you could be arrested for obstruction. It’s not about the camera or the recording,” Gregory said.
Ford’s attorney said they are still considering the next steps.
Other top cops sound off on the issue:
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony
Regardless of the recent court decision law enforcement officials must use good discretion when examining whether or not to arrest someone under the aforementioned Florida statute. Moreover, every civilian should remain compliant with law enforcement officials who are lawfully performing their duties. Everything doesn’t have to be resolved by court decisions - common sense and courtesy goes a long way.
Delray Beach Police Chief Javaro Simms
“Citizens have the right to record officers in public. Police officers have no expectation of privacy but members of the public do not have the right to interfere in the performance of an officer’s duty.”