Cops and cameras: What are your rights?

Two incidents in the past week involving cops, cameras and Northerners have raised the question: when are people allowed to film police officers at work?

'Caribou Legs' was stopped from filming a police officer outside Montreal

Brad Firth, better known as 'Caribou Legs,' is running across Canada to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. An altercation with a police officer outside of Montreal has prompted discussion online after the police officer covered Firth's camera. (supplied/Caribou Legs)

Two incidents in the past week involving cops, cameras and Northerners have raised the question: when are people allowed to film police officers at work? 

Inuvik's Brad Firth, known as Caribou Legs, was around 10 kilometres outside of Montreal when a police officer stopped him on the side of the highway. A video, posted on Facebook by the marathoner — who's running across the country to raise awareness around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women — shows a Sûreté du Québec officer approaching him on the side of the highway, asking a series of questions. After a brief interaction, the officer reaches towards the camera and blocks the lens. The video cuts out.

"He actually threw it to the ground after he took possession of it," alleges Firth.

"Thankfully that is when the other police officer showed up, and that police officer took control of the situation, because he saw how his partner was being way too aggressive in handling that situation."

Firth says he's filmed interactions with five other police on the side of the highway, all of whom respected his personal space. But he says he's also encountered police who, "have their own ideas about law enforcement, they believe that they're above the law."

Other northern incidents

A similar incident allegedly occurred last Friday in Fort Simpson during the public arrest of Darrell Sibbeston.

"When I was at the scene... The RCMP officer was pointing his finger at me and telling me now is not the time, and he was asking me to leave," says the town's mayor Darlene Sibbeston, who's the sister of the man arrested.

Fort Simpson Mayor Darlene Sibbeston says, 'there was no need for that amount of excessive force with my brother' and has filed a complaint. The RCMP says the incident is under internal review. (submitted by Darlene Sibbeston)
"I was calling out to the crowd: 'Is there somebody with a camera or phone?' And one of the community members came up with their cellphone and started taking pictures, and [the RCMP officer is]… blocking her and telling her she was not to take any pictures and leave.

"She didn't put the camera away, she continued to take pictures close up and away, and I don't believe that she said anything, she refused to leave the situation," adds Sibbeston.

An RCMP spokesperson declined to comment on the Fort Simpson incident, saying it was currently under internal review.

There is also the case of Northern News Services journalist John McFadden, who was charged with obstruction of justice while taking photos of police searching a vehicle in Yellowknife last year.

In court, officers claimed McFadden got in their way during the search. 

McFadden denied the charge, saying he was not interfering with the search and simply doing his job.

The judge is expected to rule on the matter next month.

Charter Right

"There's absolutely no general law that would prohibit a member of the public from taking video or photographic footage anywhere in a public place," says Yellowknife defence lawyer Caroline Wawzonek.

"You can't get in the way of an investigation and you can't get in the way of a police officer," Wawzonek continues.

"If you actually intercede in a way that prevents them performing their duty they can ask you to get out of the way, they can ask you to move, they ask you to leave. And if you're actually to the point of obstructing them you could be charged.
"There's absolutely no general law that would prohibit a member of the public from taking video or photographic footage anywhere in a public place," says Caroline Wawzonek, a defence lawyer in Yellowknife. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"But to the extent that you're able to stand back and you're a non-interfering member of the public, there's absolutely no reason they wouldn't have the right to take that photograph."

If the issue is so clear cut, why then do we continue to see situations where police officers try to prevent people from filming them?

According to Wawzonek, there's frequently a "misunderstanding about the boundaries of the law... and people make mistakes. Officers who are otherwise acting appropriately can make mistakes in the heat of a moment."

For the RCMP at least, there's no specific training or policies around civilian camera use, according to Cpl. Annie Delisle, a media relations officer at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

"Generally speaking, recording police interactions is not problematic as long as a person is not interfering with or obstructing a peace officer in the course of their duties," she said in an email. 

But if you do find yourself in situation where an officer is telling you to stop filming, Wawzonek says "the safest course of action is to remain calm and dispassionate about it… and just say: 'Thank you, but I have the right to take pictures in a public place.'"


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