LISTEN to Eric Byler's interview with Carlos Miller on Coffee Party Radio
Carlos Miller reports in Pixiq.com that a bipartisan vote in the Connecticut State Senate has approved Senate Bill 245, which would allow citizens to sue police officers who arrest them for taking photos or video in public. As the number of people who carry cameras on their person increases, there have been increasing incidents in which officers arrested people for documenting law enforcement activities. Legislation is needed to clarify the rights of officers and the rights of citizens.
As someone who was arrested while documenting a police crackdown on an Occupy camp in Los Angeles, I would like to say: I approve of this legislation. Mine was a political arrest. I was swept-up in the Nov. 29, 2011 Occupy Los Angeles crackdown designed to demonstrate power, and discourage dissent, by achieving a large number of arrests [read my account of my arrest here, or, hear me talk about it on The Bottom Line with Jessica English). The People do have a right to witness and document the activities of law enforcement, especially in politically charged situations like the one I documented last fall. But also, in an age when it seems that everyone has a mobile phone, and mobile phones very often include cameras, a federal law like this is needed to clarify this for everyday police encounters as well.
Police officers can feel threatened by cameras, and that is understandable. And, officers know that they have a right to take action when they feel physically threatened. But a camera does not pose a physical threat. Officers need to be instructed that they must distinguish between a physical threat and a psychological threat before taking action against innocent bystanders, journalists, and other citizens.
Watch the video below, and ask yourself if the woman arrested in Rochester, NY last year for video taping from her front yard posed a physical or psychological threat to the officer who decided to arrest her. If the officer had been trained to ask himself that question, there probably would not have been an arrest.
Police officers need to understand that a camera is not a threat to them as long as they conduct their duty according to the laws they are sworn to uphold. A decade ago, a federal racial profiling law suit was resolved with a consent decree that required the New Jersey State Police to install cameras into police cruisers to ensure that new regulations meant to protect minorities from racial profiling would be followed. At first the officers resented having "Big Brother" looking over their shoulder. But as time went on, they came to appreciate having the cameras on patrol with them. The cameras often provided exculpatory evidence showing that racial profiling had not taken place (the traffic stop took place at night, for instance, and the car zoomed by at such speed that determining the ethnicity of the driver was not possible). Also, the cameras often provided evidence that was useful in obtaining convictions. Before long, officers began insisting on having cameras with them. If they found themselves in a cruiser that had a malfunctioning or missing camera, they would bring it back and ask for one with a camera that worked.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers follow the law in the course of their sworn duty to uphold it. Sometimes, the law needs clarifying so that officers can do their job, and, maintain a relationship of trust and respect with the public. This is one of those times. I applaud Democratic Senator Eric Coleman and the bipartisan vote of the Connecticut State Senate (42-11) for taking an important step toward clarifying for law enforcement: cameras are your friends.
NOTE: The author of the article that brought this new law to my attention, Carlos Miller, was arrested while trying to document events at Occupy Miami in February under circumstances similar to my arrest at Occupy Los Angeles.