Toronto Police, apparently not having gotten that pesky Charter memo, harass citizen photographer

Let’s review a few basic facts, shall we?

First of all, in Canada, where I live, there is a thing called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in that Charter is Section 2(b), which goes a little something like this:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

which means, among other things, that everyone in Canada has the right to take pictures in public places. If that seems like a bit of a philosophical leap to you, let me just explain that photography is not just journalism, but is also considered a form of self-expression; transparency is considered one of the hallmarks of a good government and a just society; and so it logically follows that taking pictures is protected. (This is not about publishing pictures–just taking them. Laws on that vary.) I covered this matter thoroughly when I was chair of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee, in a piece called “Public Photography Is No Crime“, which is about how often in Canada police officers have harassed, arrested, and sometimes beaten people for taking pictures or video of them, sometimes while they were doing illegal things. The cops, I mean, not the photographers. It was the most popular post PEN had ever had on their site to date, receiving upward of 8,000 hits in a matter of a couple of days. That’s not Kim Kardashian numbers, but for a small rights advocacy group in a country with a small population, it’s impressive.

Then we have this incident, which took place just today:

In case you don’t feel like watching a video right now, I’ll explain that it shows two Toronto Police officers, names clearly visible, deliberately harassing, intimidating, and threatening a gentleman named Mike Miller for filming the arrest of another man for “marijuana”. I don’t know any more about his arrest than that, and I would just like to interject here that if it’s true he was being arrested for “marijuana”, well… why? I mean, really. What the hell is the point in this day and age, when we’ve just elected a PM who campaigned on a promise to legalize the stuff immediately?

No doubt the cops are eventually going to reveal that there were other factors–that he had a violent past, that he had resisted arrest, that he was some kind of bad person we should all be scared of. But you know what? It doesn’t matter why he was being arrested. The fact is, the man who was filming him had every legal right to do so. And more than that–I believe it is very important that he did. In fact, I think that it’s the civic duty of every person to film every police action they see, no matter what the context, no matter who is involved. This is how we can protect ourselves and others against police brutality, and it’s also how we can protect the police from false charges by the people they interact with.

You can agree or disagree with me, but the fact is, your opinion on this issue doesn’t matter, because the right to do this–to take pictures of uniformed police going about their duties in public spaces in Canada–is enshrined in law. There’s no debate on the matter. It’s already been established. Police officers who are going about their duty in uniform, in public, have no right to expect privacy. This is a fact of modern policing.

And it’s also been established that it’s a violation of a person’s Charter rights for a police officer to obstruct any person who is lawfully photographing them in public. This has been upheld in court before, and it will be again.

Many police officers in Canada already know this. They even welcome it, because they’re smart enough to understand that this law exists to protect everyone. It’s been shown repeatedly that when cops wear body cams, citizen complains go down, use of force drops dramatically, and everybody wins. Sure, lots of cops have gotten in trouble when their bad behavior has been recorded. But lots more have gotten out of trouble for the same reason. If they’re not doing anything wrong, they shouldn’t have anything to hide. Sound familiar?

These two people in uniform, however, apparently just stepped off a high school playground somewhere. That’s how they’re acting, isn’t it? Like a couple of teenaged thugs. It’s absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing to see two grown men behaving in such a manner. They’re a blight on the Toronto Police Department. And it’s even more ridiculous when you consider how stupid it is. They’re being videoed. This is the 21st century. They have to know that video is going on YouTube immediately. And yet still they persist in breaking the law.

It’s mind-boggling, really. And it’s more than a little scary, because if people this stupid are in positions of power, it bodes some very bad things for the citizens they encounter.

So, here’s what I’d like to see happen:

These two cops should not just be offered re-training. They should not just be fired. They should be charged with committing crimes under colour of authority. Why? Because they used their uniforms as their excuse for breaking the law, they treated that man with no respect or dignity despite the fact that he was behaving himself, and they showed flagrant disregard for the consequences.

Every day they continue to wear those uniforms is an insult to those men and women who uphold their duties with pride and integrity. Send a message to all police officers that will reinforce the good ones and scare the bad ones straight.

UPDATE: This piece from the Toronto Star gives lots more background. Turns out the two officers who committed this act of bullying are using the age of the two perps–15 and 16 years–as an excuse for their camera-blocking. I say, that’s all the more reason their arrest should have been recorded.

UPDATE 2: I’m very pleased to see that this incident is receiving the attention it deserves–just Google “toronto police mike miller” and you’ll see that all the major news outlets covered it yesterday. Unfortunately, the police are employing some disingenuous tactics to cover themselves here. Spokesperson Meaghan Gray is quoted in this Global News piece:

“The officers were concerned that the people who were being videotaped… were young people and as such their identities are protected under the law,” she explained.

The officers never at any time expressed concern over the privacy of the offenders. Their sole concern is that Mike Miller should be intimidated enough to stop filming and walk away. Again, the fact that they were young offenders is even more reason to video their arrest, because young offenders are more vulnerable than adults.