Senate Passes Watered-Down Police Recording Bill

Despite Republican concerns it may hinder police work—and citizen concerns that it gives evidence-destroying cops a crucial out—the Senate passed a measure Thursday night that would ensure the public’s right to photograph or record officers as long as they don’t allegedly obstruct officers’ work.

Under the bill people who believe they were wrongly arrested because they were taking pictures of police would have a new way to bring civil charges against the arresting officer.

The bill was amended by the Senate to protect the ability of judicial marshals to enforce photo and video restrictions inside court houses.

It passed 22-14. It now goes to the state House of Representatives.

New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney introduced the bill on the heels of two disturbing incidents: the 2009 arrest of New Haven priest Jim Manship by East Haven cops for video-recorded their alleged harassment of Latino shopowners; and the 2010 arrest of New Havener Luis Luna as he video-recorded an arrest on a public street. In both cases the cameras were seized. In the latter case the assistant police chief—who was later found by an internal investigation to have acted improperly—ordered the recording destroyed. Luna is now preparing a suit against the city.

In these cases, and in others involving police misconduct of this sort, the offending officers claimed the citizens recording them were “interfering” with police work, claims found to be lies. But during earlier deliberations about Looney’s bill, the senator agreed to add an “interfering” loophole that could give offending cops just that excuse to continue breaking the law and violating citizens’ rights.

Click on the play arrow for an example of police on Crown Street in New Haven informing a citizen photographer of the unwritten rule police have enforced in contravention of the law, then smacking the camera out of his hand.

During less than an hour of debate on the Senate measure Thursday, opponents brought up hypothetical situations where police officers could be hindered by the bill.

Sen. Kevin Witkos, himself a police officer in Canton, said he agreed with the basic underlying concept — if members of the public are lawfully present somewhere and not interfering with police, they should be allowed to photograph them. However, the measure is written too broadly, he said.

For instance, when an officer is in the investigative stages of an incident and has not yet determined whether an area is a crime scene, it’s good not to be recorded, he said. Sometimes recording police can inflame already tense situations, he said.

He said senators occasionally joke that debates go on longer since they began being broadcasted on CTN, letting legislators play to an audience.

“Well what do you think happens in the real world with recording devices? It’s the same thing. People look to catch you on the smallest phrase taken out of context,” he said.

Witkos said the bill would have benefited from a space buffer to keep people from shoving cameras into officers’ faces. Under the law, there’s not much officers can do if someone does that, he said, adding that the result may be an increase in breach of peace charges.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he didn’t like the idea of the bill. Police officers arriving at a potentially dangerous crime scene now must also consider whether it’s appropriate or legal for people to be recording, he said.

“Are we that skeptical of our policemen that we have to say when you get there we’re going to tape every action you use, every second you take, every word you speak?” he asked.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said cops already have enough to worry about. They must consider protecting themselves, the public, and the crime scene.

“I don’t want that police officer to be thinking for a second, ‘wait a minute, I’ve got this new law I might be liable. Oh darn. What am I going to do?’” he said. “I think that takes away from them doing their best job.”

But Sen. Looney, the bill’s author, said police officers would only have something to worry about if they were conducting themselves improperly. It will enhance quality police performance because departments likely will factor the new law into their training, he said.

In the East Haven case that helped spark the proposal, Father Manship in a convenience store recorded an exchange between an officer and the shopkeeper. When the officer noticed the camera, he confiscated it and later said he saw something shiny that could have been a weapon.

But in the priest’s video, later published in the Independent, the officer can clearly be heard referring to the object as a camera. Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch.

“That’s the kind of incident we’re getting at here. Clearly he was not trying to intervene or prevent the officer from dealing with the person he was involved with. He was just standing off to the side with a camera on documenting what was going on and that’s the kind of incident should be protected from over-reaching by the police,” he said.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, agreed. There are many good police officers who conduct themselves admirably, he said. However, neither state senators nor law enforcement officers should be considered to be beyond accountability. Transparency and accountability are both good things that are more important given the power bestowed on police, he said.

“There are examples over a number of years where, but for someone having a camera or video recording equipment, we wouldn’t know the serious and egregious nature of the misconduct of some of our law enforcement have engaged in,” he said.

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posted by: CT Liberal on June 6, 2011  1:46pm

The Constitutions’ passages (and by proxy, our laws) are not meant to grant rights.  They are meant to clearly document that our rights are self-evident, and that anything which is not allowed must be documented into law.

So, this new law saying its legal to videotape violates the constitution, since we already have such a right, regardless of this new law.  In other words, we don’t need a law telling us what is legal.  Laws are meant to explain what is not legal.  I realize that the reporter who wrote this article is probably paraphrasing the law when he wrote that it “would ensure the public’s right to photograph or record officers as long as they don’t allegedly obstruct officers’ work.”

I hope the law is written as a prohibition on law enforcement to prevent videotaping, instead of written as a “right for a citizen to videotape”, or else this law is useless.