By Molly Rivera, Communications Associate

Here’s what you need to know.

The nationally publicized video recordings of police officers killing Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota are timely and tragic reminders of the power that people carrying smart phones have to document police misconduct.

Here in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory this week signed a law that restricts the public’s access to police body and dash camera footage, video footage of police encounters taken on people’s cell phones will be more important than ever. Even with this shameful law on the books, neither legislators nor law enforcement have the power to take away the public’s right to film police.

Here are three things to know about filming the police:

  • You can take pictures of anything in plain view in a public space including federal buildings, transportation facilities, and the police, as long as you are not interfering with law enforcement.
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant, and they cannot delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. 
  • Our Mobile Justice NC app allows you to record audio and video which is then automatically sent to the ACLU of North Carolina. Learn more and download here.

Here is what you should do if you are stopped by police because you were taking photos or video:

  • Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
  • The right question to ask is, "Am I free to go?" If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
  • If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Some officers may be wearing body cameras or have a camera on the dashboard of their vehicle. Under the law Governor McCrory signed this week, dash camera footage is no longer public record, and law enforcement agencies may deny a request to disclose video footage. This means that people who are filmed by police body cameras may have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to the communities they serve.

Police officers put their lives on the line to protect and serve the public. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable when they abuse their authority. Transparency is important for building trust among the people they have sworn to protect. 

If you have trouble obtaining or viewing body cam footage recorded by police, please contact us. You can also help spread the word and make sure your friends and family know their rights and download the Mobile Justice NC app on their smartphone.