Editorial: Police need to understand First Amendment

An image taken from a video shot by An image taken from a video shot by photojournalist Philip Datz, who was filming police activity in Bohemia on July 29, 2011. Photo Credit: Stringer News Photo / Phil Datz

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There's one rule some police officers have a hard time comprehending: Everyday citizens and journalists have the right to shoot photos and videos of just about anything in just about any public place. That's true even when they're recording the actions of police officers. Suffolk Police Sgt. Michael Milton didn't quite get this, and his mistake has now cost Suffolk County taxpayers $200,000 after the county settled a lawsuit with a freelance video journalist from Valley Stream, Philip Datz.

Datz was shooting video of officers after a police chase in Bohemia in 2011 when Milton ordered him to leave, a move that was captured on camera. Milton then forced Datz to turn off his camera and arrested him. Datz was charged with obstruction of governmental administration, a seemingly trumped-up accusation that the district attorney's office was wise to drop. Arrests, orders to stop filming and confiscations of equipment are all too common in totalitarian nations. In this country, the cops almost never triumph.

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Along with paying the $200,000, the agreement requires Suffolk to give police annual training in the First Amendment rights of bystanders and journalists, and creates a committee of police leaders and journalists to deal with future issues.

This shouldn't be so difficult, and police officers should have learned an additional, very modern lesson by now: These days, you need to act like there is a camera on you even if you can't see it, because there probably is.

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