Legal Observers and Cop-Watchers

Effective Videotaping Techniques for Legal Observers
Prepared by Paul David Richmond, Law Student

This 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.

The Basics

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 of cops.

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 it.

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 her out.

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 your head.

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 of dollars.

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 the price.

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 the action.

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.

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