Lisa: …I mean, if you’re the police, who will police the police?
Homer: I dunno. Coast Guard?
The Simpsons “Homer, vigilante”
A fascinating video out of Rochester, New York, has hit You Tube, and it’s getting a lot of play, probably because the arrest of a young woman who had the nerve to videotape the police in action (over their objections) seems so at odds with the fundamental notion that ours is a “free country”.
The actual criminal charge was dismissed yesterday, as reported by Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle, which has done a great job of covering this case. However, by the time the charge was dismissed the video – and the issue – had gone ‘viral’.
Exactly why was the woman, Emily Good, arrested? According to the complaint filed by the police officer (posted by the Democrat and Chronicle,), the presence “behind them” of Ms. Good “holding something in her hand and [illegible] it in the air towards officers,” made those officers “extremely nervous and posed an officer safety issue.”
The charge was Obstructing Governmental Administration in the Second Degree, NY Penal Law section 195.05. In pertinent part, a person is guilty of this when he or she “intentionally obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from performing an official function, by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act.” In consenting to the dismissal of the charge, the prosecutor agreed that Ms. Good’s actions didn’t meet those criteria.
So again, exactly why was Ms. Good arrested? A number of things are apparent from the video: Ms. Good was clearly some distance from the police action. She never approached or threatened to approach the scene more closely. When questioned, she explained exactly what she was doing. Other people were standing in the vicinity (This is clear from the fact that the videotaping continues after the arrest, from approximately the same vantage, and from the other nearby voices heard on the video). The officer never ordered the others back. In short, the only apparent basis for the order to go back into her house was Ms. Good’s presence with camera rolling (the device was a video-equipped i-pod).
The order was unreasonable. Ms. Good didn’t comply, and was under no obligation to comply. However, it appears from the officer’s subsequent actions that the real issue was maintaining control of the situation. The situation had begun to spin out of control: he had tried to control something he had no power to (Ms. Good’s perfectly legal and justified behavior) and he had failed to control it. He therefore exerted his authority to regain control.
In short, Ms. Good’s refusal to obey an unlawful order was the reason for the arrest, and that the unlawful order had been given because the officer had been offended by her recording the scene.
In our modern world of video cameras embedded in our phones we had all better get used to the “threat” that our actions will be captured on tape and later used against us, somehow. We need to act properly and according to law. The police are no exception, and the objection to the taping here feels wrong simply because, pushed to its simple logical extreme, would mean that our government acts in secret ways which we are to just accept and not question, for government knows best.
But we should all know that this is not the case, and we should examine closely and understand what happened to Emily Good. the logical extension and extrapolation of Ms. Good’s experience leads to a scary place which few of us would cherish, as we do our perceived natural freedoms, as protected by the constitution.
Remember the first words to the pre-amble to our constitution: “We the People… ” We have set up this government and they exist because we do, not the other way around. It is easy to forget this most bedrock principle but it would do us all well to reconsider it from time to time.