Officer friendly?

Increasingly, the behavior of police officers across the country is tarnishing the luster of the “Officer Friendly” image once so prevalent in small towns and cities from coast to coast. Recently in Missouri, citizens have been outraged when officers reacted with deadly force to threats seemingly calling for a more measured response. Elsewhere, there have been incidents of people being arrested or intimated while making videos of police making an arrest.

Such a scenario unfolded earlier this year in Maine when a Bar Harbor couple were arrested by a Portland police officer after they recorded an arrest involving five officers and a woman who had been pulled over for a possible driving violation. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the couple last week in Hancock County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine seeks an unspecified amount for damages, claiming that Portland police Sgt. Benjamin Noyes ordered their arrest without provocation.

According to the lawsuit, the couple — Jill Walker and Sabatino Scattoloni — were filming the confrontation with the woman from about 25 feet away and were not interfering with the officers. The Portland Press Herald suggests that Noyes’ report of the incident differs. The newspaper’s report says Noyes claimed that, as another officer was interacting with the woman who had been stopped, she rolled up her window on his arm. That officer told Noyes the people across the street — presumably the couple — were cheering while he was being assaulted. Noyes said the couple later moved to within 12 to 15 feet and that, after telling them they had two seconds to leave, he ordered their arrest on a charge of obstructing government administration, which is defined as intentional interference with police.

Zachary Heiden, ACLU legal director, told the Press Herald that videos support the couple’s version of events, but declined to make those videos available. The decision of the Cumberland County district attorney not to prosecute the couple raises the question of whether there was probable cause. And it’s worth noting that the policy of the International Association of Chiefs of Police states that “Members of the public, including media representatives, have an unambiguous First Amendment right to record officers in public places, as long as their actions do not interfere with the officer’s duties or the safety of officers or others.”

The lawsuit may help explain whether, or how, the presence of Walker and Scattoloni interfered in the five officers’ interaction with the woman who was arrested. According to the Press Herald, the charges lodged against the woman also were dropped.

Thankfully, such incidents are rare in Maine. Let’s hope they stay that way.