Are the Maryland State Police More Cynical Than the Chinese Police State?

The Washington Post today gave front-page coverage to the story of Anthony Graber , who is being prosecuted under Maryland’s wiretap law for videotaping his encounter with a gun-wielding state trooper during a traffic stop. Six police officers raided his home to arrest him, weeks after he had posted the video to YouTube. The local prosecutor, Joseph I. Cassilly, told the Post it was not the first time his office had charged someone with a crime for recording the police in action. 

Journalistic conventions require the Post story to say that “[t]he case has ignited a debate over whether police are twisting a decades-old statute intended to protect people from government intrusions of privacy to, instead, keep residents from recording police activity” and that “wiretap law has suddenly become a fresh battleground for civil libertarians and bloggers who consider Graber’s prosecution and a series of similar arrests a case of government overreach.”

There is nothing to debate. Here’s a straightforward edit: The police in Maryland are twisting a statute meant to protect people from government intrusion to, instead, punish people for trying to protect themselves from government abuse.

In China, the artist Ai Weiwei has been using video recordings to hold police and the government accountable. By filming himself as he pursues complaints against the system, Ai has forced the Chinese authorities to obey laws and procedures they would otherwise be inclined to ignore. You can hear audio of Ai being beaten in his hotel room by local police in Chengdu—an incident that caused a life-threatening head injury—and watch him return to Chengdu to file a formal complaint with the police about it.

If the Chengdu cops were Maryland state troopers, they could have prosecuted Ai for recording his beating in the first place.

Is it fair to compare hard-working American cops to a Communist goon squad? The Maryland State Police is the same outfit that infiltrated and spied on political groups , including Amnesty International, and reported peaceful activists to the government as terrorists. The spying commenced under former governor Robert Ehrlich, though his successor, Martin O’Malley, let the program fester on for almost another year before shutting it down and denouncing it as “undemocratic.” Now Ehrlich (who played a state trooper on The Wire ) is running against O’Malley for governor again.

Meanwhile the State of Maryland continues to expand its use of automatic surveillance cameras to issue tickets for speeding and other traffic violations.