A new directive to the Baltimore City Police Department (BCPD) allowing citizens to record police actions was only a few hours old when it was tested by a casual observer of an arrest.

The new policy emerged on Nov. 8 and states that “upon discovery that a bystander is observing, photographing, or video recording the conduct of police activity: DO NOT impede or prevent the bystander’s ability to continue doing so based solely on your discovery of his/her presence.”

General Order J-16 went into effect Feb. 10 after a lengthy court challenge and early the following day Scott Cover, a tech entrepreneur and newcomer to the city, happened to be on the scene when six officers arrested a man in Fells Point. 

Cover pulled out his camera phone. Almost immediately Cover was addressed by one of the six officers who said “take a walk, sir, we’re asking you.” 

After some verbal interaction, including Cover references to General Order J-16, the officer’s continued to insist that Cover move along, according to the Baltimore Sun. Cover began to walk away, backwards while filming, as officers followed him, demanding identification. After looking at the phone camera footage, a civil liberties lawyer worried about the directive’s impact. “They seem more interested in Mr. Cover and his camera than with the man they were arresting,” said Deborah Jeon, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legal director. “He wasn’t loitering. He was, in fact, engaged in his First Amendment activity, which the police order says he has a right to do,” Jeon said to Baltimore CBS affiliate, WJZ.

The BCPD has already launched its internal investigation into the matter. Cover was not arrested and his phone was not taken, he also says he doesn’t plan on following the altercation with any legal action.

“Its not that the cops are trying to hide anything. We have a job to do. We are only enforcing the laws that the legislators you put in office asked us to enforce,” said Bob Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). “I think as the ACLU and others move forward trying to protect people’s rights with videotaping they have to remember there is a fine line. And our job is to maintain peace and order,” said Cherry to WBAL 1090 AM. 

Proving that the new ordinance leaves room for loopholes, Cover was not threatened with arrest for merely videotaping. Instead, Cover was told he was “loitering,” and could be arrested. The seven-page directive also doesn’t protect bystanders that “deliberately create hazardous conditions with the intent of provoking an inappropriate police response.” 

The incident has drawn the attention of media and rights organizations nationwide. “Law enforcement agencies are established to uphold and enforce existing laws not to use them as a pretext to punish someone exercising their free speech right to take photographs/videotape in public,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, Inc. “At best, behavior that chills free speech in contravention of your General Order violates department policy, at worst it is criminal,” said Osterreicher, in a Feb. 14 letter to BCPD Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III. 

The policy originated from a court case already in progress from 2010, where members of the BCPD confiscated a phone at the Pimlico Preakness race and deleted evidence of an arrest. The case is being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. On Feb. 6, a judge denied the BCPD’s request to dismiss the case.

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer