manual is meant to provide a basic overview of proven tactics for video
taping police at demonstrations. This information is presented with the
hope that it will be used. Our hope is to have as many people as possible
attending demonstrations carrying video cameras and having knowledge of
how to use them effectively. It is hoped that you the reader will become
one of these people.
Why Videotape Police
Video cameras are, if properly employed, one of the most
effective tools for documenting what occurs and containing excesses by
the police. The majority of arrests that take place during a typical demonstration
are usually for trivial things like "jaywalking or "offensive
littering" (i.e. throwing a cigarette butt down in the street.) Letting
the police know that there's a record being made and that they are accountable
is one of the best ways for law abiding citizens to control and prevent
these harassing tactics.
Assembling Your Team
Like a person involved in any sort of direct action, the
person videotaping should have a support system. Support positions may
include the following:
It is this person's responsibility to take any tape the
person with the video camera makes of the police activity and to get that
tape out of the area as quickly as possible.
Also known as "eyes." This person keeps an eye
of what's going on as the person with the video camera photographs the
action. This person is watchful for other incidents as well as any police
activity nearby the videographer.
This person can provide descriptions of what occurred
for later broadcast or legal records. This person can also interview witnesses
or victims of police misconduct.
It is also a good idea if several people with video cameras
work together. One or more can go in close and others can hang back. By
recording what is happening to the person going in close, the people on
the periphery provide an increased measure of safety. Alternatively, people
with cameras may stand on opposite sides of an incident. In this way they
both monitor each other and make a more complete record of what is occurring.
A few quick pointers...
It's a good idea to have several videotapes so if you
videotape an incident, a runner can get it out of the area and you can
continue videotaping. If you're working with an attorney, labeling a tape
"attorney work product, privileged and confidential," makes
it a little bit harder for the cops to use it without your permission.
i. The Advantages of Looking Professional
Another school of thought is that the more professional
you look, the more the cops are going to be cautious of you. Activists
and alternative media folk with cameras that look relatively close to
what the networks are carrying, and a press pass from what appears to
be a respectable news organization has been known to chase off phalanxes
ii. Media Credentials
The other consideration is if you are a representative
of a legitimate media outlet, you are on stronger legal foundation and
less vulnerable to the cops. There are laws in some states that prevent
the average person from videotaping the audio portion of an event. This
law does not apply to the "media." It's something to consider.
If you are considering this route consider applying for a press pass.
This will gain you the ability to cross many lines you would not be able
to as a demonstrator.
What to Videotape during a Demonstration
a. Tips on creating an effective legal aid
In these sorts of situations most attorneys find it useful
to show the physical relationships between the actors. The most typical
charges at demonstrations revolve around things like people crossing a
line on the street or standing on the curb instead of the sidewalk. Many
an arrest charge has been dismissed simply because it's been shown a person
was not standing where the officer said they were. If you begin videotaping
an incident, it's a good idea to leave the camera running until the incident
is over. Many prosecutors try to use the gaps in a videotape to attack
The most basic technique for good pictures is to try to
brace yourself against something so that your camera doesn't shake. Since
you're trying to cover a lot of the action, leaving your camera in wide
angle is recommended.
b. Proactive Arrest Prevention
What is important to videotape depends a lot upon what
occurs. Sometimes cops seem to be trying to fill a minimum quota for numbers
of arrests. Then you'll see them arrest people for stupid things like
"jaywalking," "offensive littering" (i.e. discarding
a cigarette butt,) or simply because someone is standing on the wrong
side of a line. In these cases it's a good idea to be proactive.
Whenever you see a cop, or especially several cops moving
to some demonstrators your video camera should be on. If it's night and
you've got a light on your camera, turn that on too. If cops are aware
they are being recorded, this can prevent many arrests.
c. Preventing Abuses During Arrests
It is also important to let the police know you are videotaping
them while they are making an arrest. While there are some cops who join
the force for altruistic reasons and are relatively decent people, there
are some that seem to enjoy hurting people. Tactics observed in past demonstrations
included police tossing a demonstrator between them to make it look as
if the person was resisting arrest. Police also circle around people so
that what they are doing to them can not be seen.
This is precisely why it is important to videotape every
arrest and every potential arrest that takes place. The police hate to
be seen doing these things and video cameras are simply the best tool
for exposing and controlling this behavior. If a cop knows that they are
being videotaped when an arrest is going down, the arrest is likely to
be a lot gentler. This is especially true if the cop or cops believe that
this tape is going to be broadcast somewhere. Most of the local cops have
families who live in the area. They don't want their parents, children
or spouses to see them behaving in a brutal manner.
Asking the arresting officers questions such as their
names, badge numbers, supervising officer, and the charge can let the
police know they're being watched and get information at the same time.
The more accountable the police officer feels that they are, the better
that they're liable to behave during an arrest.
i. When Cops Cluster Around their Victim
One of the most Common techniques cops use when they're
arresting someone or using excessive force is to circle around their victim
or victims so that they can't be seen. There are several techniques for
penetrating the cops when they go into a circle during an arrest. One
is to simply get in as close as you can. Since cops have been known to
attack cameras with their batons, this is where older or less expensive
cameras are recommended. It is a really good idea in this situation to
have someone holding the cameraperson's back and ready to yank him or
The other strategy when the cops circle around someone
they are arresting is to hold the video camera above your head and point
down. This is where the side screens on some of the newer cameras can
be most effective. If your camera lacks one of these side screens the
best technique has proven to be putting your lens as wide as it can go
and simply pointing the lens at the action while holding the camera over
Choice of Video Camera
Choice of video camera is also something to consider.
Video cameras run the gamut from relatively inexpensive ones costing three
hundred dollars or less, to ones that range into the tens of thousands
One of the first criteria to consider if you're going
to be getting close to the cops is what you can afford to lose. Unfortunately
camera shy cops do occasionally try to break video cameras. Thus, you
may wish to simply purchase a camera that won't leave you bankrupt if
it's injured or destroyed.
a. Tape format
Video cameras come in a variety of tape formats. Of the
relatively inexpensive camcorders on the market, my personal bias is to
eight millimeter over the slightly more convenient VHS-C camcorders, because
you get more tape for your money and the tapes hold up better over repeated
use. Reliable no-nonsense 8mm cameras run about $300-400.
Other formats will improve your picture markedly and are
worth considering if you are looking at putting your work on the media.
Hi-8 will give you about 50% more resolution than 8mm, but you'll be looking
at $500-600 for the most basic model. Digital 8 or Mini DV will double
the resolution of an 8mm but the starting point is $700-1000. Of the two
digital formats the Mini DV is slightly higher resolution but the digital
8 is far more economical with tape running a quarter of a price per minute.
b. Other Features
There are additional features to consider which will improve
your video, though they all add a little to the cost.
Image stabilization is a feature that eliminates shaking
and will improve your picture, but will add about a hundred dollars to
Lithium-ion batteries will also give your camera more
running time. It's an excellent idea to have more than one battery.
A small microphone will also improve your sound quality.
Sound is one of the weakest components of most non-professional videos.
Choice of microphone depends a lot upon whether you will be video taping
with a reporter. If you have a reporter, a simple stick microphone will
work best. If there is no reporter, a zoom microphone will be best to
capture the action.
A small light is good for night shooting when much of
the worst of police behavior occurs, though budget conscious activists
have accomplished the same thing with duct tape and a small flashlight.
Some of the newer Sony cameras have an infrared device built into them
which can actually record a decent image with no light for about twenty
feet, and can be extended beyond that with attachments.
Getting Your Videotape Seen
If you happen to videotape something particularly damning,
getting your tape on the air may be a good course to consider. The logic
being that if the cops are shown misbehaving they are less likely to repeat
Alternative media groups are in the process of negotiating
so that we will have regular air times through local cable TV shows and
larger networks like Deep Dish TV.
You may, want to consider, if it's particularly damning,
negotiating with one of the local stations about airing your piece. NEVER
under any circumstances give these people your original tape. Many of
the professionals work daily with the cops and if they're not sympathetic
with the cops, they're certainly reluctant to jeopardize their relationship.
Give the professional media only copies of your tape, and give them only
what you'd want them to show. Events that you videotape can be reedited,
corporate media have been known to do that. Also, if they offer to pay
you, read any contract, and make sure they're not preventing you from
showing the piece anywhere else.