Recording the Police- The Unintended Consequences

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles

  • SumoMe

Written by: Greg Ellifritz


I was driving my police car last week when I saw a black male in his 60s waiving his arms, frantically trying to flag me down. I stopped the car and walked over to talk to him.


He was doing some remodeling work on a vacant house and was the only worker on the site. When he finished the work, he was supposed to call his boss, who would return to the site and give him a ride home. Unfortunately, the worker flagging me down had inadvertently left his cell phone in the boss’ work truck. There was no phone in the house where he was working and no pay phone in the area. He couldn’t call his boss for a ride home.


Being stranded, he decided to flag me down and ask to borrow my cell phone to make the call. I handed the man my personal cell phone and let him make the phone calls he needed to make.
While the man was making the calls, I looked up and saw another man in a parked car watching us. He was eagerly video recording our interaction with his cell phone, no doubt trying to get some video of a white cop mistreating a black man.


There was absolutely no indication anything like that was happening. There weren’t any loud voices or angry faces. Neither of us was touching the other or moving aggressively. I was just standing there while a dude borrowed my cell phone.


A black man flagged down a cop for help. The cop didn’t arrest the man or beat him up. The cop helped the man in need. It happens every day. But that didn’t stop one random citizen from filming the entire incident in the hopes that he might be able to further the cultural narrative that all police officers mistreat minority citizens.


My first thought as I viewed this amateur film maker was “These ‘social justice warriors’ need to chill out.”  When someone tries to turn a simple act of kindness between two men into the next YouTube viral video sensation solely because one of the men has dark skin and the other is wearing a police uniform, it is indicative of a societal problem far worse than the issue of police/minority relations.


That was the second time I had been filmed during that particular week.  The first instance involved an arrest out of a traffic stop.  It’s relatively rare to be filmed as an officer in the city where I work.  My employer is a wealthy suburb.  The residents and the police generally get along very well.  In the 20 years I’ve been there, we haven’t had a single instance where the public was outraged at police treatment of a prisoner.  There have been very few excessive force lawsuits and those that have been filed over the years have all been bogus.  Every one has resulted in a dismissal of the suit and the officers have all been exonerated.   This isn’t a city that has historically had any problems with its police force…yet the residents still feel that it is important to videotape our encounters with other citizens.  Even when those encounters are completely innocuous.


People in a public place have every right to record officers as long as that recording doesn’t interfere with the work the officer is doing.  We have cameras that automatically activate every time we turn on the flashing lights in the police car.  There’s a good chance that the incident is already being recorded by our own cameras before the citizen ever starts filming on his own.  I am filmed by my employer every day at work.  Being recorded doesn’t bother me.  What bothers most officers is the potential that the film maker’s footage will be edited in a way that misrepresents the interaction solely so that the film maker gains some notoriety on YouTube or WorldStar leading to the perpetuation of a false social narrative.


Clearly, instances of videotaping officers have increased.  Many of these videos have resulted in social reform by exposing problems in police policy and training after they have been posted online.  That’s a good thing for our profession.  Videotaping police misconduct will lead to a long term improvement in the way police and citizens interact.  I’m all for that.  But that doesn’t mean that videotaping the police (especially when they aren’t doing anything wrong) is without consequence.


As citizens record officers with increasing frequency, what do you think the officers are likely to do?  If there’s a high probability that no matter what an officer does (good or bad) will end up on YouTube in a video critical of police, cops will simply stop working.  You see, cops are rarely disciplined for NOT doing something.  They get in trouble when they ACT, particularly when the action the officer takes turns out badly or has some undesirable political ramifications.  The easiest way to prevent that is for the officer to stop doing ANYTHING that has the potential of being videotaped.  The officer can drive slowly to calls of violence in progress (claiming that he would be putting the public at risk if he drove any faster), arriving just in time to write a stellar report without catching the criminal or stopping the crime in progress.  People don’t videotape cops writing reports.  That’s not exciting.  It’s when the cops are interacting with criminals that the cell phones come out.  A simple solution to avoid being taped would be to AVOID INTERACTING WITH CRIMINALS.  How do you think that would affect long term crime statistics?  Would it be a net positive or net negative for society if cops stopped arresting people breaking the law?


Since it’s obvious that a crime in progress isn’t the only thing that will cause people to break out the cameras, cops will start avoiding interactions with citizens as well.  I could have easily driven past the man flagging me down for help.  If I was ever questioned about it by supervisors (unlikely), I could always claim that I didn’t see the man or that I was trying to catch up to a traffic violator.  I could claim I was en route to another more important call.  There could be any number of valid reasons why I didn’t stop for help.


Driving past a person flagging me down for help would ensure that I don’t get videotaped.  Avoiding all citizen contact would ensure that my face doesn’t end up on YouTube.  I could sit all day in a parking lot doing nothing and virtually ensure that I don’t get taped.  The worst thing that would happen is that I might get some kind of reprimand for lack of “productivity.”  A written reprimand is a far better option than having my face on a negative YouTube video that goes viral.


So if cops stop arresting criminals and go out of their way to avoid having any type of contact with citizens, would society be a better place?  If the goal of the folks with the video cameras is social reform, that’s what they’ll get.  But the reform that will happen won’t be a positive one.  That makes me think that maybe these folks filming the cops  don’t really want social reform.  Maybe they want a world where criminals go unchallenged.  Maybe they place their own fame and notoriety above the goal of living in a better society.  If personal notoriety and unchecked criminal aggression is your goal, then by all means keep filming cops who are loaning their cell phones to stranded construction workers.


The truly sad aspect of where this is heading is the long term effect that it will have on the ability to hire quality police candidates.  If I was a conscientious and intelligent person,  why would I even consider being a police officer as a career when I know that whatever I do, good or bad, will end up on a video sharing site with a negative spin?  Why go through the hassle?  Quality candidates will have better career options that don’t involve their unintended starring role in the next viral video.


Do you want your police force to be staffed by lazy and unintelligent officers?  That’s the future consequence of increased videotaping of the police.  Put more pressure on cops who try to do a good job and they’ll find other ways to make a living.   Candidates who have any other career options will refuse to apply for jobs in law enforcement, leaving the ranks of your police department populated by dullards who have no other career options.  Do you think that will be a net gain for police/community relations in the long term?


Again, I can’t help but think that creating more positive interactions between cops and citizens ISN’T the goal of the people who wield the cameras.  It makes me think that anyone who has half a brain would see that this is a bad idea.  Either the folks with the cameras are dumber than I thought or their goal really isn’t trying to create a better world for everyone.  That’s something you should ponder…


In any event, I hope the amateur filmmaker in my case captured the heart felt “thank you” the man said to me and the handshake that concluded our interaction.  But I doubt that a black man shaking a white cop’s hand is something worthy of posting on YouTube.





* I know this is a controversial topic.  If you can’t control your emotional outbursts, profanity, insults, or blatant anti-police hatred, don’t bother commenting.  If you have an alternate view and can express said opinion without any of the above-listed issues, you are welcome to share it.  I will delete all ignorant and/or insulting comments and will ban the commenter from ever accessing this site.  Think before you write.






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21 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Hi Greg, you know that I really like and respect you as a person and as a law enforcement officer.

    Since a lot of my friends and family are also in law enforcement, I see a lot of positive and negative videos filmed by citizens. Not every video uploaded is negative. The most recent example that comes to mind is the officer who broke up a fight with a dance instead of arrests. It got a lot of attention in mainstream and social media.

    I know it is hard for my LEO friends right now, but please remember there are many of us who love and respect you.

    I want to believe that I will see a YouTube video entitled “He-Man shaped white cop vs working class black man” and at the end you two shake hands with mutual respect.

    Nothing wrong with expressing your frustration, I just want you to know there are legion of us who have the backs of law enforcement.

    I look forward to discussing the ethical, legal, and social implications of a more connected and recorded world with you at a future date.

  2. John says:

    I think we are going at this all wrong. Lets write laws that say if you are a bad guy and are going to commit a crime you must wear a body camera. Can you imagine the public outrage if these bad guys didnt wear their cameras! Maybe the DOJ could offer Grants to criminals to get body cameras! We really want our criminals to be transparent in their crimes…if it saves just one life! (sic)

    • Mike Mckay says:

      You cant and nobody would support it if it even comes close to impinging on someones rights

      And the problem is that if such laws WERE introduced they probably wouldnt be for excluding the people doing it with a bad intent but would probably be made to stop ANY filming of anyone without their express permission

      So a persons right to film is going to trump a persons right to not be filmed

      As for the predicted outcome if thats realistic then perhaps that needs to happen first before any change will occur, and could even be what the powers that be are waiting for. A problem that reaches critical mass and causes the public themselves to “demand” change, many of whom will have been the same people fighting to stop that change for the previous decades as that tends to be the way these things work, because governments have all the time in the world to wait for the public to demand the powers they would like, but which they know would otherwise be opposed

      So it really is a rock and a hard place situation where we can only hope the people who woold only use film that does show actual wrongdoing whilst either ignoring the rest or sharing it to show the good cops rather than ONLY showing the bad ones

      Because a total ban leaves the bad ones to get worse and the borderline ones to become bad when there is no danger of any film they are caught on being permissable

      Theres a saying

      “every population gets the government they deserve” which isnt a karma thing at all, its saying that we get what we allow or ask for although we rarely get it in the WAY we asked for it because once something is demanded a government tends to tailor it to suit their own aims, not those of the population

      So the first step should always be for any community to police themselves and thereby remove the need for the government to do it for them. That way that community has control in what is or isnt done because its them themselves driving the change

      If on the otherhand the majority of a community supports or ignores the negative aspects that reflect on all of them then the resulting legislation will affect everyone rather than just the people who misuse the right and this issue is unlikely to be any different

      After all, every right also has accompanying responsibilities, not just for an individual, but as a collective subset of any society, and when that community cant self police and maintain an acceptable and valuable standard of conduct they are actually encouraging rather than averting a far more unreasonable solution than the one they could have fought for themselves without exception

      • Mike Mckay says:

        I did have an afterthought that unfortunately clouds the issue further, with many cases of behaviour that SHOULD be recorded they will be over in an instant

        So its only by people recording seemingly innocent exchanges at the beginning that any breach would ever have been caught on camera

        There is also the fact that where a “bad apple” knew they were being filmed they are unlikely to do what they might have done otherwise

        In the UK all officers are being equiped with cameras on their person not only to minimise anything untoward but mainly to stop unfounded claims of police brutality or racism which are a common approach to avoid being prosecuted

        So maybe if every cop was wearing one or more cameras about their person and recording the sound too that might then stop the public to feel the need to police the police themselves, or not in quite so many numhers

        But the police having their own camera footage would also negate any exagerated or completely ficticious claims of misconduct too

  3. Jerry says:

    First, there is an old saying. “The fish rots from the head.” With obama and the justice department demonizing police, as well as Mayor Brasso, what else could one expect! Second, with all the hate of the people in the Black Lives Matter and Sharpton, et al, again what can one expect. Given the chance to steal something in a race riot, when the perp does not have morals or money, theft is the result. Lastly, there are the deniers who say the police will still do their jobs. Nonsense, as stated in this piece, why would someone with intelligence put themselves through this kind of treatment. I applaud all the officers that are sticking with it and would do what I can to support them. Even the police deserve innocent until proven guilty.

  4. Doug says:

    Greg… Thanks to you and the others in your profession who chose to serve the public, it is very much appreciated.

    I will admit occasional interest in stories of police brutality, particularly after the July 2011 incident where the Canton officer (Harless) threatened a conceal carry holder during a traffic stop for not notifying that he was armed. While the situation is different than what you’re specifically referring to in your post, I think we can admit there are the unbalanced bad apples that shouldn’t wear a uniform – videos do help hold people accountable. However, as you layout so eloquently, the apparent ‘gotcha’ trend only serves to undermine the goal of improving public safety – and the glut of headlines has grown tiresome.

    I’ve grown more interested in the positive stories, although as Greg points out they don’t typically go viral. It’s a sad sentiment that the positive stories have a potential ‘wow’ factor – as if we didn’t expect that to happen or see it coming – expecting the opposite to have occurred.

    I presume it’s human nature to crave the shock value that the ‘gotcha’ videos provide. 15 years ago it was the nightly news leading with whatever story showed bleeding, mayhem and destruction – today it’s the viral videos that fulfill that same “need”.

    To Greg’s point – I’m not sure how this situation will improve with a seemingly increasing polarization of society. Until a more positive trend develops, I hope that Greg, his department and the rest of the profession will consider that a vast majority of the people they serve do truly appreciate their efforts. Stay safe and thank you.

  5. Derek Bernard says:

    Thanks Greg, for a thought-provoking article.

    Despite my total lack of experience in law enforcement, I have to take issue with you regarding the likely motivation of most of the video-takers.

    Of course I may be being naïve, but I very much doubt that more than a small minority take such films with a view to deliberately aggravating the social problems you have described so well. I suspect that, because of the extraordinary publicity given to such incidents and the horrifying tendency of many high-profile politicians and others, up to and including the President, to pronounce that police behaviour is THE problem long before they know the facts – and often even after the facts are available, most video-takers are expecting that something bad is likely to happen and they want to record “the truth”.

    If I’m right the answer is better-quality reporting and more thoughtful politicians – but how on earth does one get that?

  6. You could have easily driven past the man flagging you down for help. And the videographer that filmed your actual interaction could have just as easily filmed your counterfactual avoidance thereof. Transparency cuts both ways, and the valence of spin is mainly determined by the public image of the police. My SFPD patrolman friend identifies as a social worker. Few law enforcement agencies in our land afford this luxury to their officers.

    • LesL says:

      “Transparency cuts both ways”

      Where’s the transparency about the criminals?

      “and the valence of spin is mainly determined by the public image of the police.”

      Which is negatively manipulated by this administration, the Soros-funded, marxist-trained. and jihadi-affiliated SJW groups, and their MSM lapdogs.

      “My SFPD patrolman friend identifies as a social worker. Few law enforcement agencies in our land afford this luxury to their officers.”

      Yes, and what a FABULOUS job your “friend” and his agency are doing…

      • Mike Mckay says:

        Unless you actually know his friend you arent in a position to comment on his personal effectiveness or lack thereof. And even if the department he works for has an overall poor performance efficiency that still doesnt reflect on any one individual who could be doing exemplary work which by itself isnt likely to massively alter the statistics

        As for the jihadi sentence, that pretty much negates the value in anything else your wrote either before of after that comment and undermines any valid points that you “might” have been trying to convey as a result

        • LesL says:

          For someone living in your losertarian fantasy where all communities should disband the organized police and police themselves on the laws they approve, you have a lot of stupid telling what does or does not validate my comments.

          The fact of the matter is the OP brought up his special friend as an example of alternative police work, and i cited STATISCTICS showing that that style of policing is a total failure..

          Furthermore, your personal affront re the “jihad” word shows you are either totally unaware of the facts of the alliances involved in the ferguson and Baltimore rioting, or you are completely aware of them and don’t want them exposed lest the association of your faux anarchy losertarain grab-ass society with those rioters AND THEIR DOCUMNTED JIHADI ALLIES is exposed.

          Finally, since you completely missed the terrific irony in the very posted comment on this page, you have demonstrated that you are not worth reading or debating with on this or any other subject.

          • Mike Mckay says:

            Lol, I think you need to check the name of the poster youre replying to, as its pretty clear from your comments that you “think” youre responding to somebody else as none of that will appear in any of my posts

            As for my comments being innacurate they aren’t, And the statements themselves require no prior knowledge of the specific details to be accurate

            FACT you don’t even know the person that was being mentioned by the earlier poster.

            FACT as you don’t know who he was referring to you also don’t know if he is the worst person ever to work there or the best one to ever work there. (so he could be either)

            FACT the performance of any organisation cannot be assumed to be reflective of any single particular person within that organisation. Because some will be good, some bad and others mediocre. But the organisations performance is only an average, nothing more

            FACT you did cast aspersions on the skill of the person who A) you don’t know and B) you don’t know how competent he is or isn’t

            FACT your entire oommentary on the professionalism of the person you neither know nor have any idea as to the competency of is by pure common sense and nothing else vacuous and without any basis in the real world

            So whilst you can quite validly criticise the agency he works for, without knowing the particular individual the person was referring to (which you don’t) any comment you make with reference to him is nothing more than blinkered ranting about a complete stranger you have never met but where you claim through some delusions of omniscience to be able to define and defame with some self delusionary idea that its in some way within 1000 miles of being factual which is isn’t

            And as you don’t even seem to have the cognition to realise you are responding to a completely different poster to the one who made the comments you referred to it doesn’t really look like anything you are likely to type would be worthy of note when you cant even seem to pay attention to the most obvious of details

            Missed your meds today by any chance?

          • LesL says:

            /typos all mine on mobile device…

  7. CB3 says:

    Policing the public is a harder job than most of us can understand or appreciate. There are many decisions to make, especially involving contact with the public and the use of levels of force. To believe that a human will always make the right decision in every one of these situations is naive. When LEO’s get it right 98% of the time, we are served well.

    The bad LEO’s are out there, although few in number. The good ones who make a mistake now and again–usually without killing someone–understand it is a risk associated with the job. Sometimes they get caught and reprimanded, especially as many incidents involve multiple officers/witnesses.

    What I think Greg is saying is that when good officers are improperly accused of misconduct because of a misguided social agenda, especially if through a (doctored or misinterpreted) citizen’s recording, some good guys will stop exposing themselves to such risks. The public will suffer.

    I believe the obvious example of this is the conduct of the police force in Baltimore (and probably many other places) after their recent riots. There has been a serious reduction in policing, resulting in a not-surprising increase in violent crime. The very thing “the public” wanted–less police hassling of the citizenry–is what they got. I doubt the good citizens like the results, and even the criminals are getting nailed by each other at a higher rate.

    There is a respectful balance needed here, some trust going both ways. Certain elements, including the main stream media, have disturbed that balance and trust in a quest for “better policing”, taking a shotgun approach to a BB gun problem.

    Be sure to praise and reward good policing wherever you are. Remember, these people want to go home to their families at the end of their shifts after doing some pretty dangerous things for us.

  8. Gary says:

    Awesome article, as usual. You represent your profession very well. Thanks for all the articles you sent our way! Love ‘ya man!

  9. Warren Wilson says:

    Well struck, sir. Nothing to add.

  10. Mike Edera says:

    First – I really look forward to your blog posts and have learned a great deal from them and have shared them widely, in social circles where the police/self-defense view point is usually unrepresented.

    I think I understand your point of view on this issue and will say it was well-expressed.
    I would counter with this. Social change is a messy process. For years many of us have lamented the political apathy and self-involvement of young people. For decades, our prisons have filled to over flow with young people while their peers looked the other way. That there is an awakening is a good thing, IMO. Of course, young people being young people, they will go about it in an unskilled manner. The movement needs thoughtful push back like you have provided. Like zeroing an optic, at first you use big adjustments, then refine it.

  11. Ferndale says:

    The solution is increases transparancy, higher accountability, and an end to qualified immunity in exchange for much higher pay.

  12. Eric says:

    The bad cops ruin it for the good ones, sad fact. Just wave and smile!

  13. tom says:

    Cops become more professional when filmed. I personally film every
    Interaction that could be dicey. But i also have a dash cam for accidents.

  14. JLW says:

    “If the officer had decided to do nothing, then no force would have been used. In this sense, the police officer always causes the trouble. But it is trouble which the police officer is sworn to cause, which society pays him to cause and which, if kept within constitutional limits, society praises the officer for causing.”

    MENUEL v. CITY OF ATLANTA, 25 F.3d 990 (1994)