|CT State Senator Eric Coleman|
Madison Ruppert, Contributor
The trend of individuals being arrested for legally filming police in public is an issue which gets me especially frustrated and a favorite topic of mine to bring up here at End the Lie.
Thankfully, individuals have been striking back recently through lawsuits and in some cases charges have been dropped. Furthermore, an Illinois judge declared their state wiretapping law unconstitutional in a case which surrounded recording police in public.
Connecticut’s state Senate is now taking a stand by recently approving a bill, Senate Bill 245, which would allow citizens to sue police officers if they arrest them for legally recording in public.
Carlos Miller points out that this legislation is apparently the first of its kind in the United States, something which I personally find to be quite troubling. Why aren’t more state legislatures making an effort to protect their citizens’ ability to hold police accountable?
After all, the fact that cameras were on the scene at the Occupy Davis protests to capture the pepper spray attack carried out by Lieutenant John Pike is the only reason why we know that the police’s claims that the spraying was justified are nothing short of laughable.
“What concerns me is but for the reality of the Kroll report finding something like 60 tapes of what happened, without that, folk would have a tendency to believe exactly what was said, that the officers were afraid for their lives,” said former California Supreme Court Associate Justice and professor emeritus at the UC Davis School of Law, Cruz Reynoso, in a report on the incident.
The right of the people to hold law enforcement accountable for their activities while on the job is absolutely vital and every incident like the one mentioned above just reinforces this reality.
Currently, police are able to harass and in some cases assault individuals for legally filming them while knowing that the worst that could possibly happen to them is that the taxpayer is forced to pay out as a result of lawsuits.
The Connecticut bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Eric Coleman, passed the Senate with a 24-11 vote.
The bill must now go before the House and then be signed by the governor before it would become effective on October 1, 2012.
Instead of placing the liability on the taxpayer, this bill, the full name of which is “An Act Concerning the Recording of Police Activity by the Public: To protect the right of an individual to photograph or video record peace officers in the performance of their duties” (read it here), would make the police officer liable for damages.
The relevant text reads:
This bill makes peace officers potentially liable for damages for interfering with a person taking a photograph, digital still, or video image of either the officer or a colleague performing his or her job duties. Under the bill, officers cannot be found liable if they reasonably believed that the interference was necessary to (1) lawfully enforce a criminal law or municipal ordinance; (2) protect public safety; (3) preserve the integrity of a crime scene or criminal investigation; (4) safeguard the privacy of a crime victim or other person; or (5) enforce Judicial Branch rules and policies that limit taking photographs, videotaping, or otherwise recording images in branch facilities.
Officers found liable of this offense are entitled, under existing law, to indemnification (repayment) from their state or municipal employer if they were acting within their scope of authority and the conduct was not willful, wanton, or reckless.
This bill does, in fact, include exemptions and yet some opponents wanted to see even more exemptions included in the bill.
According to The Day, one of the opponents was Senator Kevin Witkos, who just happens to be a sergeant in the Canton Police Department.
Witkos sought out yet another liability exemption if an individual allegedly intended to “inconvenience or alarm” an officer performing their duties.
How exactly this would be determined is unclear at best, yet Witkos said that he was seeking to protect police against “ill-intentioned videographers who seek to interfere with police.”
Once again, it is anyone’s guess how Witkos thinks these intentions would be determined.
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“I do believe that the public has a right, if they’re not in the way of a police officer doing their job, of filming all they want,” he said.
However, we have seen professional photojournalists be arrested and harassed for filming police when they were in no way interfering with their job.
That doesn’t stop them from claiming that the individual was interfering with police activities, so Witkos’ proposal is, in my opinion, naïve (or perhaps he is well aware of what police do since he has that first-hand experience and thus is acting to protect them).
Thankfully, the state lawmakers were not dumb enough to lap up Witkos’ attempts to eviscerate the power of the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney pointed out that the Witkos amendment “would render the bill without meaning.”
Looney also rightly pointed out that it is already a crime to interfere with a police officer and this law would do absolutely nothing to change that.
Senator Eric Coleman, the co-chair of the judiciary committee, said, “To adopt this amendment would do nothing more than muddy the waters,” an assessment which I find wholly accurate.
Other proposed amendments included one which would have completely exempted police assigned to the Capitol building from the law and one which would have placed the burden of proof on the person bringing forth the lawsuit.
According to the Hartford Courant, the bill was prompted by a 2009 incident in which a Catholic priest was arrested for recording police harassing immigrants in a store.
The incident sparked a criminal investigation carried out by the FBI wand federal prosecutors, eventually leading to the arrest of four police officers on charges of obstructing justice and excessive force.
The priest involved in the incident, James Manship, attended a press conference during which Democratic Senators stated that if the law had been in effect at the time, Manship’s actions would have been protected.
Hopefully this will set a precedent and encourage similar legislation protecting our right to hold law enforcement accountable.
Furthermore, it only makes sense to shift the liability away from bankrupt municipalities (and thus the local taxpayers who likely are already stretched thin financially like so many of us) and onto the officers responsible.
Without being able to hold on-duty officers responsible for their actions, the only reasonable assumption is that abuses of power and deplorable incidents will continue.
After all, without police dash cameras, we wouldn’t know about the incident wherein an officer brutally assaulted a 66-year-old man with dementia for no apparent reason or when two officers attacked a 22-year-old emotionally disturbed man who was not threatening, resisting or otherwise doing anything that would justify the actions.
However, police are able to turn these devices off, which means that it is absolutely vital that citizens’ right to film police in public be preserved and protected as much as possible.
I recommend you contact your state representatives and point out this legislation and how important it is to protect this right. Maybe they can use it as “model legislation” like that put for by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works with corporations to craft bills given directly to legislators.
I’d love to hear your opinion, take a look at your story tips, and even your original writing if you would like to get it published. Please email me at [email protected]
This article first appeared at End the Lie.