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Are Police Playing Copyrighted Music to Prevent Live Streaming?

Sennett Devermont is a well-known, LA-area activist with over 300,000 followers in Instagram.

He went to the Beverly Hills PD office to file a request for bodycam footage related to a traffic ticket he was disputing.

After an initially cordial conversation, Sgt. Billy Fair appears to get upset when he learns Devermont is livestreaming the interaction to Instagram. It is at this point that Sgt. Fair stops interacting with Devermont long enough to pull out his smart phone and start playing, loudly, “Santeria” by Sublime. It is only after about a full minute of music that Fair begins speaking again.

Devermont and Fair had another interaction later that day when Devermont approached the officer outside the station. When Devermont started asking questions, Fair pulled out his phone and started playing music.

Sgt. Fair isn’t the only officer who has decided that blaring music is a good way to deal with citizen journalists. Devermont shared another video with VICE Media in which another officer is rapidly swiping his phone as Devermont approaches. By the time Devermont reaches his, “In My Life” by The Beatles is blasting from the officer’s phone. When Devermont asks why he is playing music, the officer asks “Do you like it?”

While playing loud music while interacting with citizens is distracting and makes communication more difficult, it appears that the true purpose is to get the videos flagged by social media platforms. The major platforms use AI algorithms to monitor videos for copyrighted music, and these algorithms will often shut down a livestream for this reason. Also, if a user account is flagged for multiple violations, the account could be shut down forever. This could have a significant impact on an activist like Devermont.

The BPHD denies that playing music during interactions with citizens has been recommended by the department, and it says the videos are being reviewed.

Ultimately, however inconvenient this particular tactic for avoiding accountability is, it is a losing strategy in the long-term. Social media platforms generally allow copyrighted music in a video as long as it’s not the video’s sole purpose. So, even if an account is flagged by an algorithm, the user is afforded the right to appeal any ban, and is likely to prevail. But the user has to go through the appeal process, and this can take time.

Police have been party to various lawsuits around the country for the last few decades where citizens have fought for their right to film officers in the line of duty. Courts of Appeal for the Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have upheld a citizen’s right to film law enforcement, as long as the filming itself does not obstruct the officer’s duties. The First, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits recognize this right as applying to other government officials as well as police.

Officers who don’t want to be filmed will sometimes require the person filming to delete the footage, while others attempt to arrest such citizens for “disturbing the peace” or “obstructing an officer.” When present in sufficient numbers, other officers will use their bodies to block the camera’s view, often describing their efforts as “crowd control.”

So playing copyrighted music is only the latest tactic police are using to prevent being filmed. As long as our politicians refuse to pass legislation that truly holds officers accountable for violating the rights of citizens, including the right to film police policing, this game of cat and mouse will continue. 

 

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