ACLU suit: Police confiscate phones

Videotapes such as this incident last year have become the subject of a pending lawsuit by the ACLU against Philadelphia police. Some officers are being accused of confiscating cell phones and harassing people who record police actions. — PHOTO COURTESY MSNBC

Lawsuit alleges harassment, criminal charges against bystanders recording arrests


A little over a year ago this month an eyewitness in the vicinity of 55th and Pine Streets videotaped two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of a man, Askia Sabur, apparently being beaten and arrested by Philadelphia police.

The short video was up on You Tube by the next day and a firestorm of controversy followed. The eyewitness was within their Constitutional rights to visually record what transpired and the police officers involved in the incident didn’t interfere.

But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, not every one with a pod camera or cell phone who electronically recorded an arrest has been so fortunate.

This week the ACLU announced it is filing a lawsuit later this month against officers in Philadelphia that not only confiscated the cell phones of citizens who taped an arrest — a violation of their rights — but in all cases filed charges of disorderly conduct against citizens just because they were monitoring the officers who were engaged in making an arrest.

“This lawsuit isn’t just about the confiscation of cell phones but about citizens who were all charged by police because they were monitoring police activities,” said Mary Catherine Roper, attorney for ACLU Pennsylvania.

According to Roper, the ACLU intends to file a lawsuit this month on behalf of four people who accuse the police of either confiscating or destroying their cell phones, and charged them with disorderly conduct, because they were videotaping what they perceived as police misconduct.

She said that in one incident a person had their cell phone deleted. In another incident a citizen used an audio recorder during a police operation and posted the recording on YouTube. In a third incident a person was charged just because they were simply watching an arrest. In a fourth incident a photographer was arrested because he was taking pictures of police ejecting homeless people out of Rittenhouse Square.

Roper said police charged all of the people involved.

“The bottom line here is that people have a right to monitor the police, you have a right to watch and not have to suffer any retaliation or harassment. Some Philadelphia police officers have a different idea about that. Certainly not every officer is going to have a problem with residents who are just watching while an arrest is being made — they conduct themselves in a manner that is professional and appropriate. However, we believe this type of harassment is department wide and that it is the department’s policy to tolerate this. In at least one case, we believe it goes straight to the top — it involves the commissioner. I think this police commissioner has a genuine concern about corrupt officers and officers who are violent — but I’m not so sure about his concern for officers who retaliate against citizens. The department has done some growing, but it needs more.”

Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has been open and candid about the department’s efforts to weed out officers who cross the line, denied any participation in any incident in which police harassed or retaliated against someone because they were watching an arrest being made. So far Ramsey has not been named as a plaintiff in the impending lawsuit.

“That’s just not true,” he said. “And I have instructed my staff to release a memo reminding officers that people have a right to watch arrests being made, they have a right to videotape them if they choose and the officer can’t confiscate the tape or camera. It’s really just common sense, but maybe some officers need to be reminded. If it’s proven that any officer did this, then they will face summary charges by the department.”

During a recent interview, Commissioner Ramsey spoke at length regarding the efforts that the department is making on it’s own behalf to excise officers who cause problems.

“Most officers do not want to have to work with someone who is a problem and being an embarrassment to them and the department. Most of our people get out on the streets and do their job very, very well and I’m proud of them,” Ramsey said. “But you’ve got some bad eggs in the basket and we’ve got to weed them out — and I think I’ve gotten a lot of support on this. For decent officers who care about their careers, their families and the communities they serve, don’t want to have these guys around. Every one we have to fire is a mark of failure because the goal is to let them have long distinguished careers. Right now we have 145 officers working in the Internal Affairs unit. We have better reporting mechanisms as compared to the past. Anything that rises to the level of intervention we actively pursue it.”

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