Police often use social media sites like Facebook as an investigative tool to learn more about criminals and their crimes.Notably, reported Krause, "Law enforcement associations say the only way to truly be anonymous is not to have social media accounts. But many police departments are behind in developing social media policies and guidelines for their officers." Carlos Miller at Photography is Not a Crime argues argues that outing an undercover officer isn't necessarily retaliation under the law.
But as one recent Mesquite police case illustrates, sometimes the same tactics can be used to seek revenge against investigators.
Melissa Walthall, 30, of Mesquite was arrested Monday by Mesquite police and charged with retaliation, a felony, for posting a photo of one of the department’s undercover officers on her Facebook page.
And since we're on the subject of Police v. Photography, also via Photography is Not a Crime, "Police in Texas shot an unarmed man 41 times, then turned around and confiscated another man’s camera after he started taking photos and shooting video of the bloody aftermath." The underlying story out of Garland, also via the Dallas Morning News ("Witnesses to end of chase where Garland officer fired 41 shots say police deleted cell phone photos, video," Sept. 11) subscription required) declared that,
A Garland police officer is on restricted duty after authorities say he fired as many as 41 shots at an apparently unarmed man last month, killing him.According to the News, next door neighbor Mitchell "Wallace took cellphone pictures and video after the shooting stopped, but he said Mesquite police confiscated the phone and deleted the video and pictures. The phone was returned four days later, he said." Deleting the video (read: evidence) may or may not be illegal, but it's certainly bad form.
Garland police also said Tuesday that dash-cam video revealed that Officer Patrick Tuter crashed his squad car into a truck driven by the suspect, Michael Vincent Allen, before the shooting started. Initial reports had said Allen had hit Tuter’s car, prompting the officer to open fire.
The good folks at the Austin Peaceful Streets Project have been pushing for the City of Austin to enact a more forceful policy - perhaps modeled after the one adopted (pdf) by the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police - to protect the rights of public photographers in just these situations. That sort of policy would have also protected Mr. Wallace, providing guidance to both citizens and officers about what's allowed.
If local governments are going to keep arresting photographers or seizing their cameras, given the rise of cell phone cameras and other such common devices, perhaps it's time to proactively enshrine the right of the citizenry to photograph police into state law, adopting key provisions from the Washington D.C. policy and federal best practices to restrict when police can seize cell phones and cameras, much less delete evidence taken at an alleged crime scene, as reportedly happened in Garland. It'd be great if local PDs could be relied upon to enact and enforce reasonable local policies on this question, but so far, that's not what's happening.