Hawai‘i public has right to record police

“Can we all get along?”

Those famous words came from Rodney King, whose 1991 beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers was captured on videotape by a bystander and shocked the nation.

In those pre-YouTube days, that grainy footage was probably the most infamous citizen chronicle of police abusing their power.

After the officers were acquitted of excessive force charges, riots erupted and parts of the city burned. That’s when King spoke.

His words might apply today in Hawai‘i, based on two recent incidents, one involving the publisher of a Maui weekly newspaper and the other involving a Big Island blogger.

It’s easy to view both cases as “media” matters, not of general concern.

But that would be a mistake. It’s not the media that has the right to record video, audio and still pictures from a public place, such as a street or sidewalk. It’s the public. And when limits are imposed on journalists, they’re actually being imposed on all people — a cause for concern for all of us.

Without the videotape of King’s beating, it’s hard to imagine people would have believed what happened. Even with it, there were differing views.

Clearly, police and the men involved in the two Hawai‘i incidents this year have conflicting views about what happened.

The first incident came on Maui this spring, when an officer hit Maui Times publisher Tommy Russo’s camera when he was filming from a public place. The officer is heard telling Russo: “I don’t want to be filmed, and if I don’t want to be filmed, I don’t have to be filmed.”

Well, actually, he does. As long as people are in a public place and not interfering with police work — people, not just journalists — can film, take pictures or record audio. They certainly don’t need permission from anybody.

In Hawai‘i, only one-party to a conversation needs to approve recording. You don’t need to tell an officer you’re recording what he says.

The other Hawai‘i incident came on the Big Island, where earlier this month blogger Damon Tucker was arrested while he was taking photos and videos of police arresting people from a public sidewalk. He says police confiscated his iPhone and camera and he now faces misdemeanor charges of obstructing government operations.

It’s not that it’s impossible for a citizen or journalist to obstruct government operations. But you’d think officers would want to bend over backward to make sure they’re not seen to be trying to prevent the public — or journalists — from witnessing them at work.

Hawai‘i Island police put out a statement, saying that Tucker interfered with a police officer while he was trying to do his job. But even if that were the case, couldn’t the problem have been resolved in a better way?

It would seem even the department thinks so. Its statement went on to include these very important words, ones that every officer — and member of the public — should remember:

“The Hawai‘i Police Department recognizes that the media and the public have every right to photograph police activity in a public place from a safe distance.”

Well said.

What a safe distance means isn’t defined. But let’s just say that it isn’t so far away that other members of the public wouldn’t be able to judge for themselves whether officers conducted themselves appropriately.

• John Temple is the editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, an online news source serving Hawai‘i. Read more at www.CivilBeat.com.

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