Monday, March 31, 2014
Video and public gatherings
Much is being written about the "riot" in Tucson near the University of Arizona campus on Saturday evening following the school's overtime loss in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The police department is defending its actions, although there are murmurings about coming lawsuits and a thorough internal investigation. However it plays out, the event illustrates a couple of problems involving public gatherings and the role of video.
First, according to one eyewitness (the owner of one bar), students were not destroying property or acting in a violent or "unruly" manner. Nevertheless, the police "declared" it an unlawful assembly and issued a dispersal order; the violence (people throwing beer bottles began after that order, once police began trying to clear the streets. So the question (which I have not heard asked or answered) is why this was an unlawful assembly or why it was necessary for people to disperse when, according to that bar owner, they were "more were hanging out in the street rather than trying to cause problems." Tim Zick (William & Mary) has written extensively on the collapse of public spaces under the First Amendment, as public gatherings become heavily regulated and, in this case it seems, presumptively unlawful, to be met with massive displays of force and immediate dispersal. This is not to excuse violent responses to the move-along order, as much as to question the need for, and propriety of, the order in the first instance.Second, people are talking about this video, in which a riot-gear-clad officer body-checks a woman over a bench (go to the :21 mark).
The video does not provide context, although the person who shot the video says the woman was walking to her car and talking on her cell when the officer ran over to her. It is hard to watch this without thinking about qualified immunity (is there Ninth Circuit case law about body-checking people talking on the phone?), the likelihood that this officer is going to have a job for much longer, and whether the plaintiff should get summary judgment under Scott v. Harris, because anything the officer can say to explain his actions will be "blatantly contradicted by the record" (i.e., this video). On the other hand, this case actually shows why video, while helpful, does not obviate the need for a factfinder; at the very least, there can be a dispute as to what the video shows and means and as to possible non-video explanations and reconciling any such conflicts is why we have factfinders.
Finally, this should render hollow the arguments against a public right to video record police conduct. This seems like exactly the situation in which we want people to be able to "check" police and the type of conduct that we want to expose with the more real and affecting (albeit not conclusive) evidence that video provides. The argument that police will behave differently if people with cameras are watching is incoherent, since this behavior is exactly what we hope officers will refrain from doing--and if the chance that they are being recorded provides that deterrence, great (it likely is more effective deterrence than § 1983 liability). And allowing people to record in no way "interferes" with this officer's work, other than by potentially exposing his misconduct.
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This may be a case of "obvious clarity" vis-a-vis Hope v. Pelzer where the officer's conduct was so egregious he must have known his conduct was illegal even in the absence of "clearly established law".
The larger point on whether officers are more inclined to intervene to disperse public gatherings like this thereby making them more dangerous events than they otherwise would be is a valid one. But the blame should also be placed at the feet of the school administrators whose singular focus on sports over academics fuel these kinds of large scale, drunken gatherings.
Posted by: Albert Wan | Mar 31, 2014 2:19:06 PM