APD won't hinder citizens who videotape cops

Faced with complaints from a citizen watchdog group, Atlanta police will stop interfering with people who videotape officers performing their duties in public, an agreement reached with the city Thursday says.

The settlement, which also calls for the city to pay $40,000 in damages, requires city council approval.

The agreement resolves a complaint filed by Marlon Kautz and Copwatch of East Atlanta, a group that films police activity with cell phones and hand-held cameras. The group has volunteers who go out on patrols and begin videotaping police activity when they come across it.

Last April, Kautz said, he pulled out his camera phone and began recording Atlanta police who were arresting a suspect in Little Five Points. Two officers approached him and said he had no right to be filming them, Kautz said. When Kautz refused to stop, one officer wrenched Kautz's arm behind his back and yanked the camera out of his hands, he said.

"I was definitely scared," Kautz, 27, said.

Kautz said that when he asked to get his phone back, another officer said he'd return it only after Kautz gave him the password to the phone so he could delete the footage. When Kautz refused, police confiscated the phone, he said. When police returned it, Kautz said, the video images had been deleted, altered or damaged.

As part of Thursday's settlement, reached before a civil rights lawsuit was filed, the city will pay Kautz and Copwatch of East Atlanta $40,000 in damages. APD will also adopt an operating procedure that prohibits officers from interfering with citizens who are taping police activity, provided individuals recording the activity do not physically interfere with what the officers are doing. The policy is to be adopted within 30 days after the Atlanta city council approves the settlement, and training is to be carried out during police roll calls.

"We commend the city for resolving a long-standing problem of police interfering with citizens who monitor police activity,"  the group's lawyers, Gerry Weber and Dan Grossman, said.

APD spokesman Carlos Campos said the matter had been referred to the Office of Professional Standards, and three officers were disciplined. The two officers who confronted Kautz -- Mark Taylor and Anthony Kirkman -- received oral admonishments for failing to take appropriate action. Sgt. Stephen Zygai was admonished for failure to supervise.

"Commanders have made it clear that Atlanta police officers in the field should not interfere with a citizen’s right to film them while they work in public areas," Campos said.

Also Thursday, the Atlanta Citizen Review Board sustained allegations of excessive force against Kirkman, who took the phone out of Kautz's hand. The board recommended to Police Chief George Turner that Kirkman be suspended without pay for four days. It also recommended that APD adopt the new standard operating procedure.

Copwatch began in 1990 in Berkeley, Calif., and other chapters have since been organized in cities across the country. Its goal is to protect citizens from being mistreated by holding police accountable. With the ubiquity of small hand-held cameras and cell phones, Copwatch members can begin videotaping a police scene at a moment's notice.

"There shouldn’t be anything wrong with these constitutional watchdogs keeping an eye on the police," said Emory University law professor Kay Levine. "Just about anything the police are doing out in the public, in performance of their duties, members of the public can see -- and therefore film."

Citizens should not interfere with police activity, however, and should be wary about compromising an undercover investigation, she said.

"Just about anything the police are doing out in the public, they should be comfortable being videotaped because they’re simply performing their duties," Levine said. "If some aren’t comfortable with it, it makes you wonder why."

Kautz started Copwatch of East Atlanta after he moved here about two years ago.

"We landed right smack dab in a situation where we saw police behavior was unacceptable," Kautz said, citing the controversial APD raid of the Atlanta Eagle gay bar. "We saw Copwatch as direct action we could take to increase police accountability in the city."

Copwatch members are trained how to behave when videotaping a scene, Kautz said. "It's important for us when we're out there to keep it together. We try to stay professional, as we expect the police to be."

Copwatch members get varying responses from police, Vincent Castillenti, 24, said. Some officers become hostile because they don't like the scrutiny, while others begin behaving less aggressively when they realize they're being filmed, he said.

Kautz said the intent of Copwatch is not to get police officers in trouble. "The hope," he said, "is that our presence will remind police the community is watching what they're doing and wants them to be on their best behavior."

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