Are Cell Phones Public Enemy Number One With Miami Cops?

The Miami Herald reports that since 2008, at least 11 people claim that they've been arrested and/or had their phones confiscated by police officers.

By Jamilah King Jun 16, 2011

The Miami police department has been under intense scrutiny since a Memorial Day police shooting left one man dead and several bystanders injured at the city’s annual Urban Beach Weekend. Officials continue to deny reports that officers destroyed cell phone evidence of the shooting and planted evidence to back their up their case days later. Now, the Miami Herald has published a rough timeline dating back to 2008 that examines the department’s hostile approach to civilian use of cell phone cameras to document police activity.

The Herald reports that since 2008, at least 11 people say they were either arrested and/or stripped of their cameras or phones after filming officers. That number includes Narces Benoit, who says he hid his memory card in his mouth after cops smashed his phone and hauled him off to jail during the Memorial Day melee. Meanwhile, officers deny smashing the phone and say that Benoit was simply looking to sell his video to CNN.

This most recent controversy isn’t an isolated incident.

For decades, the department has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. In 2010, seven black men were shot and killed by police in eight months, prompting both the NAACP and the ACLU to call for an official investigation by the city’s Civilian Investigative Panel. Details of those shootings still have not been released, and there have also been calls for the Department of Justice to look into those shootings.

Channing Kennedy wrote earlier this month that Urban Beach Weekend has attracted racially coded criticism along with police scrutiny for years. The annual festivalgoers are mostly young and black, and some had previously accused the department of racial profiling. Critics have labeled them an "unruly and dangerous mob."

Time and again, cell phones have proven to be one of the strongest tools for documenting police misconduct. Yet legal scholars agree that cell phone evidence alone can’t capture the entire story. For their part, Miami police have staged an organized effort to watch the people who are watching them. The Herald reports that when civilian Robert Hammonds started a six-person film crew called Channel 62 to document police abuse, officers arrested him on charges of loitering and obstruction of justice. They then issued an "FYI officer safety" poster warning officers to "use extreme caution" when dealing with the group because they were armed — with cameras.

Miami police officers insist that they’re acting on the offensive. Police Chief Carlos Noriega says that half of the department’s officers have participated in a new training on how to handle cell phone cameras. ""The more cameras, the better," Noriega told the Herald, citing that they could help solve crimes, exonerate innocent officers and get crooked officers off the street.