An internet activist’s war against police brutality

“I’m not a cop hater.”

Carlos Miller felt the need to tell this to me after we’d spent nearly 20 minutes talking about his blog’s role as an internet refuge for those who have been blighted by the law and have the video evidence to prove it. Naturally, as someone who has become semi-famous for exonerating American citizens from bogus charges — charges often brought about through deliberate abuse perpetrated by law enforcement officers — Miller gets regularly peppered with hundreds of emails from all walks of life: A person from Nevada who thinks he didn’t deserve a speeding ticket; Someone whose family member is in prison and supposedly innocent; A gossipy item about an officer engaging in some kind of illegal activity. But unless there’s video or photographic evidence attached, Miller likely won’t touch it. He just simply doesn’t have the time. “I can’t do anything without some kind of evidence. You have to have some kind of video evidence that disputes what the cops are saying so it’s up there for the world to see.”

But despite his assertion that he’s not a cop hater, there’s little doubt that his very existence makes many police officers bristle. After several high profile cases — often sparked by Miller — of police abuse being exposed, law enforcement agencies in multiple states are stepping up pressure to make it illegal to record an on-duty officer. As reported by Gizmodo earlier this month, they’re attempting to use existing “wiretapping” laws to go after those who post YouTube videos and Facebook photos that embarrass or even incriminate their fellow brethren. In fact, it was this very legal maneuvering that led to Miller launching his blog, Photography is Not a Crime, in the first place.

In February 2007, he had been photographing a group of Miami officers as a journalist when they suddenly noticed him. After repeatedly ordering him to stop taking pictures to no avail, they tackled and arrested him for several misdemeanors, one of which claimed he had been obstructing traffic. He created the blog as an attempt to document his trial, but as he waited for his day in court Miller expanded into more First Amendment issues. By the time he managed to get the last of the charges dropped, he was hooked.

“I decided that if I was going to write for free, I’m going to do it for my own blog,” he told me. “I made the decision in January 2008 — it was my resolution — to take this blog to another level. It took about a year … and by January 2009 it was getting more than 100,000 page views a month.”

Much of that early traffic came from front page links on Digg and Reddit, but the blogger eventually amassed his own audience. He publishes at least five posts a week and most of them receive dozens of comments each. Unsurprisingly, these comment sections have attracted a certain breed of people who do not have a generally favorable view of police officers. “Police can basically lie all they want,” wrote one recently. “Look at this roid-rage jerk,” opined another. “Went and slaughtered some people overseas for money, comes home to put on the pig suit.”

But if the blog has become an easy venue for people to vent their negative feelings on cops, it has also demonstrably helped in saving those who otherwise would have been found guilty of untrue charges. For instance, Miller was one of the only ones to initially report on an absurd case in which a photographer was arrested for taking photographs of Amtrak trains — for an Amtrak photograph contest. As one can probably guess, many of Miller’s blog posts are based on similarly bizarre Kafkaesque situations. After he highlighted the story, the photographer in question appeared on the Colbert Report and the charges were swiftly dropped.

Newspaper editors have repeatedly claimed that the loss of editorial jobs will lead to a less watchful press, one in which government institutions will be able to get away with more unscrupulous activities with little independent oversight. But Miller arguably highlights more police abuse than a single reporter would have even in the heyday of newspapers. “I’m writing about cases that the mainstream media, for the most part, they ignored,” he said, noting that traditional journalists will eventually pick up a story once it has gained traction in the blogosphere. “Unless you’re actually a journalist for the newspaper [who’s getting abused by the law], they don’t care because they just think it’s some yahoo with a camera who deserves to be arrested.”

So how often do cops get caught committing embarrassing acts on camera, really? More often than you’d think. With the proliferation of cell phone and digital cameras, it’s hard to do much of anything without a recording device within eyesight. “Twenty years ago a guy with a camera was a photographer,” Miller said. “He was either a pro or a serious amateur, and I’m sure this kind of abuse happened 20 years ago but it wasn’t photographed nearly as much as it is now.”

Since his rise to popularity, Miller has been approached to speak in front of classes and on panels, including one where he sat next to the then-police chief for Miami, a potentially awkward situation. It’s not uncommon for officers to show up on his blog and comment on his posts, though he said some have left out of frustration. But the blogger has some simple advice for all those cops who get flustered when he humiliates their colleagues.

“Now that video can go on the internet, they know they can be embarrassed, but they end up embarrassing themselves more and going after the photographer and acting like a total ass. Just ignore the guy and do your job.”