Settling For Your Rights

Willie King took the full ride after recording the Indianapolis police arresting a guy.  From the Indiana Lawyer (via a twit by Radley Balko):

Indianapolis resident Willie King who was arrested in February, 2011 after he used his cellphone to videotape police officers arresting another man. King was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and public intoxication.

He was acquitted after a bench trial, but didn’t stop there.

Following a bench trial that found him not guilty, King filed a federal civil rights case against the city of Indianapolis and the police officers involved in the incident. The lawsuit, Willie E. King v. The City of Indianapolis, Jonathan M. Lawlis, Robert K. McCauley, Brad Alford, Michael B. Wright and David Miller, 1:11-cv-01727, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.

King claimed the city and the officers violated his First, Fourth and 14th amendment rights. In addition, he asserted the IMPD used excessive force against him and that he was a victim of false arrest and malicious prosecution.

We are well past the point where an explanation is needed that photography or videotaping of police in the public performance of their duties is not a crime. Indeed, it’s a right.  Or using the language of the law, a “firmly established right” for the purpose of seeking redress under §1983.  And so the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department settled the case with King.

The settlement was reached within weeks of King’s March 10, 2014, trial date. Along with requiring the city to implement a new policy, the settlement also awarded King $200,000 in damages.

“Willie King was wronged when the officers stopped his videotaping and took away his cellphone,” said King’s attorney Richard Waples. “We want to make sure that in the future police officers understand that people have the right to video record their actions.”

Within two months of signing the settlement agreement, the city’s police chief must issue a legal bulletin that explains officers should not interfere with civilians who are observing or recording their actions in public as long as these civilians maintain a safe and reasonable distance from the scene, do not interfere with the officers’ work, and do not pose a danger.

To his great credit, Willie King didn’t just take the money and run, but his lawyer, Richard Waples, used the case as an opportunity to protect the rights of others and change the culture of IMPD to respect the right to record the cops.

This raises the next level of concern, will the IMPD change their ways and honor the constitutional rights of those recording cops?  Or will they use the caveats to thwart the settlement?  After all, the issue will no longer be the rights of citizens to record the police in public, but whether they “maintain a safe and reasonable distance from the scene, do not interfere with the officers’ work, and do not pose a danger.”

The wiggle room in there for subjective police interpretation is huge.

A recent video has made the problem plain.

There is little efficacy to arguing the point, as this isn’t a debate but an assertion of force and authority for which the person doing the recording has little recourse. Was he to push the cop out of the way? That won’t end well. Instead, he’s left to the mercy of the cop, who will eventually accomplish his task of ruining the recording, harassing the recorder and, ultimately, causing a caveat to come to pass, justifying his subsequent action. It’s just too easy to undermine the right to record.

And in this case, we have video to prove what happened, Had the cop seized and deleted it, or destroyed the phone, we’re back to the old he said/cop said, an unpleasant position from which to argue a point.

As is often the case, PoliceOne provides a survey of cop attitudes toward efforts to reform police culture.


Much as I respect Waples’ and King’s efforts to achieve a settlement to protect the right to record police, the culture of antagonism toward it remains very much alive. Not every cop, but most, will try to find a way to either avoid being recorded or “get” the person doing the recording.

Settlements like this, combined with a serious initiative from the top down to make clear to cops that recording is how it’s going to be from now on, are certainly positive and productive steps toward ending the antagonism, but then the next level requires prosecutors and judges to become attuned to police manufacturing excuses to prevent recording, the huge caveat gap in the settlement, and taking citizens for the ride if not the rap.

It’s not going to happen because cops gain a sudden respect for the people they’re supposed to protect and serve. It’s not going to happen because a settlement was reached, or even an order is issued by the Chief.  As long as there are caveats, they will be exploited.  But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the system has to enable police antagonism and blindly adopt the fear and loathing of some cops toward “these piss-ant wannabe reporters.”

It is a right. Any challenge to that right needs to be viewed with utmost skepticism, and if it isn’t, then you’re not only enabling the circumvention of constitutional rights, but attacking them as well. This is not what lawyers and judges should do.

7 thoughts on “Settling For Your Rights

  1. Canvasback

    The citizens play rough in New York. The Shawn Johnson video was worth watching just to hear him tell Officer Rojas to “Back the fuck up.” They even kept count. We need more like him. And it was so cool at the end too when another guy with a camera took up the cause and called out his support. Some good things may come out of New York even yet.

  2. GeorgeB

    Strange there’s no mention of the cops in question being punished in any way.
    Must be a reporting oversight, I guess…..

    1. Frank

      No oversight. No disciplinary action will be taken. I have no faith in the “legal bulletin” that the department is required to issue for all the reasons Scott stated and then some. I would have felt a lot better had the consent decree (assuming there is one) had read in the Justice Department letter from Sharp v Baltimore and stated “this is the way it’s going to be in Indianapolis”.

  3. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, Thanks for bringing another isolated incident to our attention. Remember back in the day, when we learned about this type of crapola via’ I.E. (which has been allowed to fade away for some reason). One theme has remained a constant, that being the taxpayers end up having their taxes utilized to pay off victims and their lawyers (I call it bribing) vs the actual criminals being held responsible for their crimes.

    When a settlement is allowed to take the place of an investigation from an outside agency, it replaces unbiased fact finding that includes patterns of abuses and abuses being swept under the nasty rug, the seeking of criminal charges, an indictment and a felony trial. When the crime rate is allowed to ‘not’ reflect that the crime occurred, it’s like it never even happened. At some point they will beat or hurt the wrong person again sparking another nationwide unrest and they’ll blame it hooliganism, thugs and criminals. We can only hope the taxpayers eventually learn a lesson and take bribery out of the equation, before the bank is bled dry with settlements / bribes. As it is now, we really can’t tell the difference between the real criminals and real cops. In some places, children play criminals & robbers and beat lil Johnny like it’s cool. A Settlement is not the answer.

    1. SHG Post author

      Be cautious in your rhetoric and conclusions, Thomas. Bear in mind, this is a settlement. The police were not proven to have violated Willie King’s rights. On the bright side, both King and the city benefited from the settlement. The steps may not be fast enough, big enough or clear enough to suit the need to bring systemic change, but at least they’re steps in the right direction. The alternative could be worse.

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