Looney: Cop-Photo Bill Will Rise Again

Thomas MacMillan/Melissa Bailey PhotosDespite a legislative setback, Martin Looney vows to keep working to give people like Luis Luna another weapon when cops wrongfully arrest them for turning on their cameras.

For the second year in a row, New Haven state Sen. Looney’s bill protecting people’s rights to film cops hit a wall in the state House of Representatives. Looney said he’s ready to try again next year, with a different strategy.

Senate Bill No. 245 was one of many left on the cutting room floor as the state legislative session closed on May 9. The bill would have allowed people to sue cops who try to stop them from filming police in action. It was inspired by incidents like the unlawful arrest of Luis Luna while he filmed cops on Crown Street two years ago, in which a top cop ordered evidence destroyed.

This year was the second time Looney has introduced such a bill. Both times, the matter cleared the Senate and died in the House.

State Rep. Gary Holder Winfield said the bill was one of many casualties of an unrelated last-minute disagreement over minimum-wage and the jobs bills, which backed up a lot of legislation. He said he’ll work with Looney to pass the police-cameras bill next year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department last week made it clear in a Baltimore case that federal law protects citizens’ rights to video the cops. (Click here to read about that.)

Looney drafted the Connecticut legislation in response to the arrests of New Haveners who were filming cops.

Father James Manship, head of a largely Latino church in Fair Haven, was arrested in East Haven in 2009 while video-recording cops there allegedly harassing Latinos. That arrest led to the disclosure of a wave of previously unreported complaints of race-based harassment by the East Haven police force. The disclosure led to an investigation by the Department of Justice, a civil suit against the East Haven police department, the resignation of the police chief, and the arrest of several cops.

New Haven has seen yet more similar cases in the past couple of years, from a controversial raid of a private Yale party at Club Elevate, and the arrest of a Quinnipiac University student who was filming the arrest of another student outside Toad’s nightclub.

In some cases, cops have been able to grab cameras out of people’s hands with impunity. Click the play arrow to watch a cop snatch a camera and say, “You don’t take pictures of us. How’s that?” New Haven police commenced an internal investigation into that incident, then let it go without follow up because it involved a state cop on duty in downtown New Haven.

In other cases, like that of Luis Luna, police have been found to be clearly at fault. Luna was arrested in 2010 while filming cops on Crown Street with his iPhone. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing after an internal affairs probe found that an assistant police chief had trampled his rights.Click here to read the scathing internal affairs report. The assistant chief resigned from the force.

Diane Polan, whose law firm represented Luna when he successfully fought his arrest, said the Constitution already protects the right to film cops: “Our view is that the law is already clearly established in the Constitution that this a violation of the First Amendment.”

And in the wake of the Luna incident, then-Police Chief Frank Limon issued an order clarifying that cops can’t just use a blanket “interfering” excuse to confiscate cameras, order filming stopped, or arrest citizens taking video or photos.

Looney’s law would nevertheless be “a useful law to have” for people who find themselves in Luna’s position in the future, Polan said. “It would be a positive public policy statement to come out of the legislature.”

Looney said said he’ll offer the bill next year, when he’ll adopt a different strategy: He’ll introduce the matter in the House first. He said he’s confident he can get the legislation past the Senate; he’s done it twice already. The sticking point seems to be the House, so Looney will aim his efforts there first.

“I would run the bill as a sponsor in the House,” said Rep. Holder-Winfield.

It’s not that the House doesn’t support the bill; it’s just that it’s controversial, Holder-Winfield said. “Anytime we do a bill that talks about rules for police officers, we have controversy. It’s just the culture in the legislature.”

“I think it’s an important bill,” Holder-Winfield said. While it’s already legal for members of the public to film cops, that’s either not widely known or followed, he said. The proposed bill would have clarified what the rules are and for both cops and for the public. That’s important for “clarity and transparency,” Holder-Winfield said.

Holder-Winfield said he’s sometimes seen as anti-police, but he said he’s really more concerned just that the relationship between police and public be made clear.

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