The motto of the Providence, RI police department is “Semper Vigilans,” which translates as “always watchful,” or “always on watch.” It’s a encouraging slogan for the city’s police department, but apparently one that doesn’t apply to the city’s residents.
Earlier this month, The Providence Journal reported on allegations by John Prince that city police officers had destroyed a cell phone video he recorded of their interaction with women on the sidewalk outside his house.
Prince’s interaction with the police began when he saw them stuffing a suspect in a squad car parked outside his house. He said that he then saw the police interrogating two women who were walking by, and he felt that the officers were not acting in a reasonable manner. Prince went into his house, retrieved his cell phone, and began recording the events in front of his house.
One of the officers allegedly told Prince to stop recording the scene. Prince started back into his house, and said that one of the officers pursued him, grabbed his cell phone, and then erased the video that Prince had recorded.
The department refused to discuss any discipline taken against the officers. However, Prince’s attorney, Shannah Kurland, reported that two officers had letters put in their permanent files and one of them received a day-long suspension. Those two officers, along with a third officer not disciplined, were required to attend a training course.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has published a useful summary of the rights of citizens to record interactions with the police. In short, Mr. Prince had every right to use his cell phone to record a scene occurring on the sidewalk in front of his house:
Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties. … Police should not order you to stop taking pictures or video. Under no circumstances should they demand that you delete your photographs or video.