I was too busy to post about it when I first saw this, but Texas Representative Jason Villalba has filed a bill that would make it illegal for Texans to videotape a police officer from 25 feet or closer while that officer is performing a duty or exercising his/her legal authority. The obvious import is that it would be a crime to videotape an arrest – but “performing a duty or exercising [legal] authority” is broad enough to basically mean anything. I’m hearing this bill may be dead on arrival (not surprising given the proliferation of videos of questionable police conduct in the news lately), but I haven’t seen that in black and white in a news headline just yet.
I object to this type of legislation on all sorts of grounds. First off, I have personally done just what Villalba wants to criminalize. I have peacefully videotaped officers at legal protests in my work for both the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild. My experiences were interesting and the officers were – usually – respectful (the good officers generally could care less if you video tape them because they know they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing). On point for the supposed reason Villalba filed his bill, my being there never interrupted, disrupted, impeded, or interfered with the officers’ duties. My second objection comes from my work as a criminal defense attorney. When you’re accused of a crime, it’s your word against the officer’s. As I tell my clients, that’s generally not a good position to be in. Many in the general public automatically question the word of the accused, completely skipping the presumption of innocence. Many also have a complete and unflinching trust of whatever the police say (a complete and unflinching belief in anything is a bad idea, in my humble opinion).
The tragic and infuriating events that have grabbed national news headlines lately may be starting to slowly change public opinion. Whether it’s officer Michael Slager in South Carolina shooting Walter Scott in the back as he ran away from the officer or the 10 California deputies who tazed and then repeatedly kicked Francis Pusok while he laid on the ground … or closer to home, the Dallas Police officer who shot and killed Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man who’s mother called the police to help get him under control and then had to watch helplessly as he was riddled with bullets.
Put simply, we absolutely must have video of police officers’ interaction with the public. Whether it’s body cams (which may be coming en mass soon) or the cell phone videos of public bystanders, having video to document what actually happens in tense, life and death situations is good all the way around. On the one hand we’ll catch and hopefully get rid of officers who use unjustifiable force. On the other hand, we’ll protect good officers from false claims made against them. Put those two together and the public can move back towards having faith in their police officers.