For the Dallas Police Department, a picture is worth 500 words.
Police officials this week released a new one-page general order — an official directive to officers — on the right of the public to photograph police activity. The officials said now that mobile devices with cameras have become ubiquitous, they wanted officers to be aware of the public’s rights. But a well-known neighborhood activist and amateur photographer said the department left the general order way too general compared to a four-page draft policy full of specific guidelines and procedures.
“They chickened out,” Avi Adelman said of the Police Department. “There is no guidance, so the cops will make it up as they go along.”
Adelman, who became prominent in Dallas for his activism in Lower Greenville, has been at the center of the local debate over the right to photograph police. Recently, he had a dust-up with some officers because he said they tried to stop him from photographing an officer who was having a heart attack.
Ron Pinkston, president of the Dallas Police Association, and a good Samaritan who was helping the officer said Adelman was hindering first responders’ attempts to save the officer’s life. The officer survived.
Afterward, Adelman said that he was thrilled with the draft copy of the policy, which he believed would get the officers in line. The draft told officers what they should do when someone was photographing them, how to warn photographers that they might be interfering, how to seize cameras for evidence with their consent, and more.
Now, the policy is boiled down to just two paragraphs. It says officers “should simply assume at any time a member of the general public is likely to observe and perhaps even photograph or video/audio record their activities,” and that they are free to do so as long as they don’t interfere with police duties.
Assistant Chief Brigitte Gassaway said the policy “clearly states” the public has a right to record.
“We don’t consider it to be vague,” she said. “We consider it to be very clear.”
She said the policy is simply so that officers and citizens understand that the public has rights as long as they don’t interfere with officers doing their job.
“The bottom line is that the public has a right to video-record us, and we expect our officers to be professional,” she said.
She said police officials finalized the policy after consulting with city attorneys, community leaders and police associations.
Adelman faulted the officer associations, which enthusiastically backed a much-maligned bill by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, to mandate distance between police and people photographing them. The bill died quickly after its introduction.
But Pinkston said he didn’t have anything to do with paring down the photography policy. He said he only had two minor objections to parts of the four-page policy.
Still, Pinkston said he is happy the policy was shortened. He said the length could make it as convoluted as the maligned, sometimes redundant foot-pursuit policy that police officials recently simplified.
“Four pages is a lot for officers to have to go through versus a more concise general order,” Pinkston said.
Other police departments have lengthy directives. Baltimore and Cincinnati police departments have seven-page policies. Austin’s is three pages.
National Press Photographers Association lawyer Mickey Osterreicher said Dallas is short-changing its officers.
“It does a disservice to the officers who rely on general orders to give them guidance,” he said.
In the long run, he said, officers will make mistakes and open the city to lawsuits.
“We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way,” Osterreicher said. “And it’s unfortunate that they chose to do it the hard way.”
AT A GLANCE / WALLET-SIZE POLICY
The Dallas Police Department’s new general order on citizens’ right to photograph:
“It is increasingly common for uninvolved bystanders at the scene of police activity to photograph and/or video/audio record the actions and conduct of police officers. Officers of the Dallas Police Department should simply assume at any time a member of the general public is likely to observe and perhaps even photograph or video/audio record their activities.
“As a result, officers must understand any bystander has a right to photograph and/or video/audio record the enforcement actions of any police officer so long as the bystander’s actions do not interrupt, disrupt, impede or otherwise interfere with a peace officer while the peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law.”