June 30, 2021

Are You Allowed to Record Police?

Advancements in technology have made it easier than ever to record interactions between law enforcement and citizens. In recent years, viral videos captured by bystanders have exposed misconduct and documented situations that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

If you ever witness a heated encounter between a police officer and a citizen, or if you’re the one interacting with law enforcement, you might wonder whether it’s legal to record the situation.

The short answer is yes, you are allowed to record police officers when they are on duty. However, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure you are fully within the scope of your rights and do not put yourself at risk of arrest.

Your First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment gives all citizens in the United States the right to freely discuss our government and ensures freedom of the press. The rise of personal recording devices has allowed citizens to capture footage without being a part of the official “press.”

Various court cases have set the precedent that the right of the press to document events also applies to citizen journalists and in most circumstances, recording the police falls under the umbrella of the First Amendment.

When Are You Not Allowed to Record Law Enforcement?

While many court cases have upheld the right to record police, there are some limits to this. For one, you cannot interfere with the police officer’s ability to do their job. If they ask you to step back and give them more room, it is important to do so. You also may need to stop recording if it is clear that the act of recording is causing the individual being detained, or bystanders, to become aggressive to the officer.

Additionally, you cannot commit any crime in an attempt to record a police officer. Examples include trespassing, stalking, or harassment. If the officer arrests you for one of these or any other crime while you are recording, it is important that you do not resist.

You can (and should) speak to a lawyer after the arrest.

Specific State Recording Laws

Some states have wiretapping laws that restrict when audio can be recorded without the police officer’s knowledge or consent. This applies to conversations that the officer would reasonably consider “private.” If you’re not aware of the specific laws for your jurisdiction, it’s best to record openly instead of attempting to do so in secret.

Best Practices for Filming Police

If you are in a situation where you feel you need to document an interaction you or another citizen are having with a police officer, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Stay calm and be polite throughout the interaction.

Your demeanor and politeness toward the officer will decrease the likelihood of escalating the encounter. Although it’s never a guarantee, simply being nice and polite can help.

2. If you are a bystander, maintain a reasonable distance from the encounter at all times and do not attempt to interfere.

If your recording interferes with the officer’s ability to do their job, you might find yourself in your own encounter with police, which you should avoid if at all possible.

3. Know what the officer can and cannot legally ask you to do.

This changes if you are being detained. If they say yes, then you’re required to provide your name in most states, but otherwise can invoke your right to remain silent until you speak with an attorney. The officer can’t require you to show them the video you recorded or delete the footage without a warrant. You may politely refuse any requests from the officer to give them your phone.

4. Position your recording device safely.

Be careful about how you hold your phone camera if it is in your hand. You should keep the phone close to your body and place it around your midsection. If you move it aggressively, it could be mistaken for a weapon. If you are filming from inside the car using an app like TurnSignl, it’s best to keep the phone mounted on your dashboard.

5. Use a smartphone or other video recording device to record the encounter.

Consider using an app, like TurnSignl, that will automatically upload your video to the cloud for storage, so the video file won’t be lost if anything happens to your phone.

Recording With the TurnSignl App

If you’re stopped by the police and have the TurnSignl smartphone app, press the “record” button or use a voice command (like Siri or Alexa) to activate the app. This will contact an attorney, record the entire interaction, and upload the video to your own personal cloud for safe storage.

It’s our goal to get everyone home safe. We are not a police-monitoring app.

Instead, we encourage the accountability of all parties by documenting the encounter, as well as by using the de-escalation skills of our vetted attorneys.

TurnSignl is available on iOS and Android. Download our app today.