What cops can teach us about being on camera

Police have long embraced having everything they do on the job recorded by either the department or civilians; fire officers need to adopt their mentality


In 1971, the American philosopher John Rawls coined the term "publicity principle." In its simplest form, this principle forbids a government from following a policy or practice that it would not be able or willing to defend publicly to its own citizens.

I've been thinking about this principle as I watch yet another YouTube video of a fire officer behaving in an abusive manner toward a resident who is legally using a video camera in public. In the most recent example, a fire chief lets loose with a string of obscenities and threats toward the man with the camera, who was posing no threat at the scene.

Many people are outraged by this type of behavior on the part of public officials. Some try to explain it by saying that the people who are filming are being deliberately provocative, and the officers are reacting from the stress of managing the scene (in one case a medical helicopter landing; in another, a bomb threat).

Of course there are at least two sides to every story. But the fact was, in both these cases, the person filming was doing so entirely legally and from an area that had not been cordoned off in any way as part of the emergency response.

And roll camera
Fire officers might not like to be filmed when they are doing their jobs. It can be distracting, and there is always the fear of looking bad.

But nothing will make a fire officer look worse than threatening, bullying or otherwise abusing a resident with a camera. Behaving in this way makes fire officers appear unprofessional and as if they have something to hide.

When dealing with transparency of operations, the fire service might look to the experience of law enforcement. When asked about the issue of the public filming police operations, a young officer laughed.

"People film us all the time," he said. "You'll have a dozen people with cameras on every call. It's just part of the job."

Transparency is an ally
Police departments have learned that transparency can be their ally, and this includes keeping video records of nearly all activities on the job. Most police cars have cameras in them to record calls, and many officers also wear personal cameras on their uniforms.

People who are less than happy to find themselves on the wrong side of the law often accuse police of bad behavior. Good police officers understand that having a complete record of their actions can be a tremendous help to them in many circumstances.

Fire officers are public officials, answerable to the residents of their communities. There are times when an officer should stop an individual from filming at an incident — for example, when that person is endangering himself or others by doing so. However, in many cases, residents will be well within their rights to operate cameras at emergency scenes.

Nothing to hide
Instead of being threatened by this reality, fire officers should just accept it, and understand that transparency and accountability will be their friends when they have nothing to hide.

When John Rawls created the term "publicity principle," he could not have imagined personal computers, much less Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. And these technologies are only the beginning. Ten years from now, we will look back and laugh at how limited and slow our current technologies are.

Everyone will have more access to information, not less, and accountability will increase as a result, at all levels of the organization. Now is the time to accept that being a public official in the 21st century means something quite different than it did even 10 or 15 years ago.

Someone once said that the guiding principle for personal behavior both on and off the fireground should be this question: Would I want to see myself doing this on the evening news? This used to be a hypothetical question, but not anymore.

In 2013 and beyond, you should assume that anything you do at work could very well end up on the evening news, for better and for worse.

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