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A history of cops vs. cameras in Miami Beach
[July 01, 2011]

A history of cops vs. cameras in Miami Beach

Jun 15, 2011 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- On Memorial Day, when a dozen officers shot and killed an armed driver allegedly trying to run down police officers with his car on Collins Avenue, cameras were rolling. From across the street. Along a street corner.

From seven stories up.

Within three hours, the first of several videos had gone viral on YouTube and Facebook. And the Miami Beach Police Department faced a grilling not just over the fatal shooting, but over its handling of a witness, who said police slapped him into handcuffs, snatched his cellphone camera and stomped it.

A Channel 10 newsman's camera was also briefly seized that morning.

While Miami Beach police have denied that anyone's phone was stomped, the accusations echo previous complaints against the department -- and underscore nationwide frictions between law enforcement, who generally don't like being filmed doing their jobs, and civilians in an era of ubiquitous cellphone cameras.

"This isn't just a one-time thing," said Gregory Samms, a criminal defense attorney representing two men who say they were beaten and wrongfully arrested in 2008 after briefly filming a Miami Beach police traffic stop. "This is what they do on Miami Beach. This is how they operate." Police did seize multiple cameras on Memorial Day, but they were not trying to cover up their actions, said Police Chief Carlos Noriega. The officers were determined to preserve evidence, not destroy it, he said.

Since 2008, at least 11 people say they were either arrested and/or stripped of their cameras or phones by police in Miami Beach after filming officers.

Narces Benoit, who used his cellphone to record officers shooting Raymond Herisse on Memorial Day, says officers pulled him out of his Ford Expedition by his hair, stomped on his phone and briefly handcuffed him, before shoving the phone back in his pocket. He was uncuffed and taken to the station, where he surrendered the phone, but not before hiding the memory card in his mouth.

Ultimately released, Benoit sold his footage to CNN, which then aired it along with an interview of him and his girlfriend.

Noriega denies either Benoit or his phone were mistreated. The department released a photo of the phone that showed it intact except for small cracks in the screen.

"Clearly he was looking to sell his video," Noriega said.

Miami Beach police have also had run-ins with a six-person film crew that calls itself Channel 62 and says it is piecing together a documentary about police and cameras. The unsubtle title: Man vs. Pig.

Channel 62 member Robert Hammonds said the group was formed in September 2009 after a verbal confrontation involving Hammonds, his friend Brent Bredwell and a Miami Beach police officer escalated into a DUI arrest. Hammonds recorded the episode -- until the camera was seized as evidence.

Over a series of weeks, Bredwell tried to get his camera released, only to get a "runaround,'' Hammonds said. So Hammonds and three friends went to police headquarters with cameras and lapel microphones to force the issue.

Result: Hammonds was arrested on charges of loitering and obstruction of justice.

The following day, police released an "FYI officer safety" poster, similar to a wanted poster, showing Hammonds, Bredwell and Channel 62 colleague Christian Torres. It warned officers to "use extreme caution" when dealing with the trio because they were armed -- with cameras.

Since that poster was published, Hammonds claims he has been stopped three dozen times in Miami-Dade County. He blames the poster.

A Miami Beach police spokesman said the poster was not circulated to other departments.

Internal affairs investigator Sgt. Osvaldo Ramos wrote last June that Hammonds and Bredwell "have been known to record officers while doing their jobs and instigating them to do or say something that could be perceived as improper." Jon Shane, an assistant professor at John Jay Criminal College of Criminal Justice, said cameras have been a looming presence in police work since the 1991 beating of Rodney King by a group of Los Angeles police officers was recorded by an amateur videographer.

Despite the damning video, the officers were acquitted.

Police and lawyers say cameras can distort as well as reveal. "I have yet to see a video that shows everything that needs to be shown," Shane said.

Noriega said he has been concerned in the past over complaints that officers seized cameras, which is why he recently implemented a training program on when cameras can and cannot be seized as evidence.

Of the complaints by Narces Benoit and others, he said: "One is too many in my opinion but we're not having a problem of epidemic proportions." He said the department's policy is that officers can seize cameras on the spot if necessary to safeguard evidence of a crime.

However, Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said: "If they believe somebody has evidence of a crime, they should get that person's information, notify them not to destroy or alter the evidence, and then go get the proper court order they need in order to obtain that evidence as opposed to just taking it," Osterreicher said.

The friction between police officers and citizens with cameras isn't isolated to Miami Beach, said Carlos Miller, a professional photographer who maintains a blog, Photography is Not a Crime, that chronicles such things. "It's everywhere." Just three weeks ago, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy was accused of snatching a woman's cell phone and breaking it in two because she filmed as he made an obscene hand gesture and used racial slurs before arresting her, The Sun-Sentinel reported. Plantation police say they found the broken cellphone and the video. The deputy has been suspended with pay.

Miller's blog is filled with stories and links from around the country -- including a recent episode in which a Buffalo-area K-9 officer told an amateur videographer he would "break your face'' if he kept filming.

Los Angeles media outlets reported that teenager Jeremy Marks was charged with "attempted lynching" after filming an officer's physical confrontation with a teenager beside a school bus. Police said Marks tried to incite a riot. Charges were dropped in April.

Miller himself was jailed by Beach police in 2009 during Urban Beach Week after they said he ignored commands to back away while taking pictures of an arrest. The public intoxication charge was dropped.

While Noriega says he hasn't seen a history of abuse in his five years as chief, he decided to begin training officers on how to handle cameras and cell phone cameras following two recent complaints. Noriega said roughly half his department has received the training. He said the recent allegations by Benoit -- and the ensuing media attention -- have led him to consider additional training.

Overall, Noriega said, cameras are a positive thing because they help solve crimes, exonerate officers of false allegations and catch those cops who are crooked.

Said Noriega: "The more cameras, the better." To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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