Cops vs. cameras: filming cops illegal

When Robert Hammonds and a friend, Brent Bredwell, finished filming a DJ show at Jazid in South Beach, it was around 3 a.m. on a Sunday in September. A few minutes later, after they jumped into a car and headed down Washington Avenue, a drunk-looking driver swerved across traffic and cut them off.

Hammonds leaned out the window and yelled "What the hell are you doing?" at the guy.

Next thing Hammonds and Bredwell knew, a beefy cop was pulling them over. Holding his Sig Sauer .40 caliber gun at his side, the officer angrily thrust his hand into the car through the driver-side window and waved his walkie-talkie.

"Are you a fucking idiot?" the cop screamed. "Doing that in front of me? Asshole!"

Hammonds, in the passenger seat, was discreetly filming the outburst. When reinforcements arrived to put Bredwell through sobriety tests, Hammonds kept taping and agitating. "Oh, it's martial law now!" he yelled.

Another officer gestured at Hammonds. "Take the camera," he said to a colleague. "It's evidence now. Take it."

On film, the frame shakes violently and Hammonds yells, "I do not release this camera!" But then an officer grabs it and shuts it off.

That confrontation, filmed in 2009, was the first of dozens that Hammonds and three friends caught on tape. They've paid dearly, spending thousands on legal fees and tickets, and sleeping multiple nights in county lockup. They've even seen their faces plastered on a warning flyer sent to departments around Miami-Dade County.

They're part of a simmering national fight between citizen journalists and police departments that believe subjects have no right to film them. The battle over whether cops can arrest you just for videotaping them is quickly becoming the most hotly contested corner of American civil liberties law.

"As more professionals and amateurs use equipment to record police activity, they're facing the ire of officers who just don't want to be recorded," says David Ardia, director of Harvard University's Citizen Media Law Project. "We need a clear answer from courts that this is legal, or else police officers' instincts will always be to snatch the camera."

It might seem like an open-and-shut argument — cops are public figures, after all, and they're operating in plain view on the street. But it isn't, at least in the dozen states, including Florida, that require both parties in any conversation to consent to audio recording.

Since video cameras also record voices, police argue, citizen journalists are breaking the law when they record cops without permission. Publishing cops' photos also jeapordizes their safety, says Detective Juan Sanchez, a spokesman for Miami Beach police.

Miami Police Department officers, meanwhile, say they only arrest camera-toting civilians like Hammonds when they harass cops and break the law. "When you go beyond filming to trying to piss off an officer, you're subject to arrest," says Delrish Moss, a department spokesman.

Police around the country agree with him. Last May, a man in Maryland named Anthony Graber posted a YouTube video made with a helmet camera. It showed a state trooper drawing a gun and threatening him during a traffic stop. A few days after the clip was posted, police raided Gruber's house and charged him with "illegal wiretapping."

In Massachusetts, courts have upheld several similar convictions, including one against Jeffrey Manzelli, a Cambridge sound engineer who recorded police at a public antiwar rally.

In South Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the City of Boynton Beach this past June on behalf of a local woman named Sharron Tasha Ford. She had gone to a movie theater to pick up her son, a minor, whom police accused of trespassing. Ford said she had "a bad feeling" about the arrest, so she took a camera with her. When she refused to stop filming, she was arrested and charged under State Statute 934.03, the "two-party consent" recording law.

"It really is a perversion of this statute to try to apply it to filming or recording what public officials are doing in public," says Randall Marshall, legal director of ACLU Florida.

Hammonds and Bredwell didn't know about the legal infighting when they pulled out their camera on Washington Avenue 16 months ago. They just acted on instinct. "It's your responsibility as an American to monitor authority and to speak up when it's being abused," Hammonds says.

Hammonds is a 30-year-old Indianapolis native with shoulder-length hair, a goatee, and a perpetually aggrieved voice. He moved to Miami five years ago to study film at Miami International University. That's where he met Bredwell, a soft-spoken, six-foot three-inch filmmaker whose father is a cop in Fort Myers.

They never planned to become police agitators. But when Bredwell tried to retrieve his seized Sony camera the day after that first incident, he says Miami Beach police claimed not to have it in the evidence room.

A week later, the friends returned to police headquarters to try again. This time, they brought a full assortment of cameras and mics. They shot footage of the cops stonewalling Bredwell again. When officers noticed the cameras, they arrested Hammonds and charged him with obstruction of justice, loitering, and trespassing. He says an officer grabbed him by his hair in an interrogation room and then locked him in a sweltering van for two hours in 90-degree heat.

The day after Hammonds's arrest, Miami Beach police printed a flyer with mug shots of Hammonds, Bredwell, and a friend, Christian Torres. Headlined "FYI Officer Safety," it warned that the trio "were seen filming the Miami Beach Police Department" and were "extremely hostile" and "looking for a confrontation." Anyone who spotted them "should use extreme caution."

"They make us sound like terrorists for filming a protest," Hammonds complains.

Sanchez, the Miami Beach Police Department spokesman, says the trio acted suspiciously. "[They] were claiming they were filming in part for a documentary, [but] they had no credentials," Sanchez writes in an email statement. "Post 9/11, and in keeping with homeland security, the filming of any possible location which could be considered a target... arouses suspicion."

Either way, the flyer was effective, the friends believe. In the months that followed, the three — along with a fourth member of their crew, Klemote McClean — were pulled over and detained more than a dozen times.

The group filmed almost all of the confrontations. Though their cameras were repeatedly seized, they've gotten all equipment back save for one camera, which the Miami Beach police claim to have no record of.

They gave their group a name: Channel Six-Two, after the scruffy bayfront block of NE 62nd Street in Miami where all of them live. And they made a promise: to always keep their cameras on. The six hours of tape they've captured show how most officers react to a camera.

In one nighttime encounter, Hammonds films over a fence in front of his house, and a City of Miami cop notices. Torres had been pulled over while driving to a corner store called Mercy Supermarket.

"Who are you?" the cop demands.

"I own this house," Hammonds says.

"Shut it down. Shut it down!" the officer growls. When Hammonds tries to argue, the furious cop charges aggressively toward the fence.

Moss declined to comment on the incidents in the video, but said that in general Miami cops only arrest videotaping civilians if they interfere with police work.

"Some of what you see on this video is clearly attempts to incite police officers," he says.

On another night, Hammonds films at the corner store. A neighborhood officer has thrown Torres over a cop car and handcuffed him. (He was later charged with "resisting an officer without violence.")

A sergeant who arrives on the scene demands credentials. When Hammonds admits he doesn't have any, the officer grabs the camera and cuffs him.

"Why are you afraid of the truth being filmed if you're doing your job the right way?" Bredwell asks. "That's our feeling."

None of the charges against the Channel Six-Two crew have stuck. (Bredwell, who refused a Breathalyzer test that first night on Washington Avenue, accepted a deal to withhold adjudication on a DUI charge.)

That's not to say the group hasn't suffered for its work. Hammonds is unemployed and suspects his legal fights have handicapped his job search. Bredwell spent more than $7,000 on court battles. Hammonds's Jeep was repossessed last summer by a towing company when he couldn't afford the impound fees after getting pulled over for an expired tag and "insufficient tread."

But the friends still hope to have their revenge. Their weapon is a DVD, which they plan to sell on the streets and online by this summer. It's titled Man vs. Pig.

"We realize it's a controversial name, but unfortunately it's accurate for what we've seen on the streets in this city," Hammonds says. They've already started plastering Man vs. Pig stickers around South Beach and midtown and have drawn a couple thousand views on a YouTube trailer. The point of the film, which describes the friends' clashes with police because of videotaping, is simple, Hammonds says.

"We think every citizen should have a camera in their car," he says. "Every encounter with police officers — every one — should be filmed."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

Latest Stories