“Every Ontarian should read the Police Services Act’s Code of Conduct, especially the part in Section 30 that says an officer engages in discreditable conduct when he or she “uses profane, abusive or insulting language or is otherwise uncivil to a member of the public.”
This reminder is necessary given what appears to be a predilection on the part of some police to order citizens to cease using cellphones or video cameras to record officers in the public performance of their duties.
The fact is, police have no sweeping authority under Canadian law to order people to stop taking pictures or videos of them in public or confiscate their devices without a court order. Certainly, police can arrest anyone who wilfully obstructs them while taking pictures, but even then they have no automatic right to seize the device, much less delete its contents.
Unfortunately, say observers, too many police think otherwise. And even if they know better, they too often use the excuse of obstruction and the threat of arrest to cover their illegal demands.
“Increasingly, people are being arrested, charged or even assaulted by police officers, merely for attempting to take photos or videos of officers at work,” says lawyer Karen Selick, who wrote on the topic last week in the National Post. “Often, police simply command people to stop photographing. Scared into thinking they must be breaking some law, citizens comply.”
“Police are being caught on camera and they don’t like it,” says Carleton University criminologist Darryl Davies. “But contrary to what the police may feel about the use of this technology to record their activities, there is no restriction on people taking pictures.”
“There is nothing in the Criminal Code that would directly prohibit someone taking pictures of officers in the performance of their duties in public,” says Abby Deshman, Director of the Public Safety Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “They can tell you to move away but they don’t have the right to stop you taking pictures.”
Deshman says the association has been contacted by several people complaining of “feeling intimidated or threatened with charges by police for taking pictures of them in public.”
The most infamous case in Canada in this cops versus cameras confrontation is undoubtedly that of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish visitor, who died after he was tasered at the Vancouver airport in 2007. A bystander captured the tragedy on video. The RCMP seized the camera and the owner had to threaten court proceedings to get it back.
In Selick’s account, a client whose property was being searched by police asked friends to videotape the event. The police, however, forbade them taking pictures. They also confiscated the cellphones of three others they thought connected to Selick’s client when they searched their homes. The photos taken on one phone were even deleted. According to Selick, when the phone’s owner complained, police responded: “We can do whatever we want.”
No they can’t. So, what should you do when a police officer (or, for that matter, a self-important security guard, pompous park warden, officious bylaw officer or any other badge-carrying public servant) tells you to stop taking pictures?
Davies offers this advice: Politely and respectfully inform them that they have no authority to issue such an order, that there is no law in Canada that forbids you taking pictures in a public space, and if they act aggressively toward you or threaten to seize your advice, calmly inform them they will face an official complaint and, possibly, criminal charges of illegal search-and-seizure….”