Criminalizing Citizen Videos of Police is ‘Bad Policy,’ says Texas Group

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Photo by Rohan Kar via Flickr

The public should be free to record all interactions between police and citizens—as long as those recordings don’t interfere with ongoing investigations, argues a policy briefing paper issued by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

“Law enforcement recordings in the form of body cameras and dashboard-mounted cameras have long provided valuable evidence of wrong or right actions by both the citizens and the police,” said the paper, written by TPPF senior researcher Randy Petersen and published  earlier this month by the right-of-center foundation, which has been a key player in the nationwide “Right on Crime” movement.

“The same ability to document interactions between the police and the communities they serve rightfully is afforded to…citizens by the First Amendment.”

The paper, produced by the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF, was written in response to a bill proposed in the Texas legislature this session that would criminalize any recording of the police within 25 feet of the officer if unarmed, or within 100 feet if the recording party is lawfully carrying a handgun.

The briefing paper said the bill would distort the “balance of legitimate government interests and individual rights” guaranteed under the Constitution.

“Police serve and protect the public daily, striving for peace and civility,” said Petersen in a release accompanying the paper. “During interactions between the police and the public, these two competing interests sometimes come into conflict. As a former police officer myself, I fully understand that these conflicts are among the most sensitive of interactions. Using video and audio recording to capture these interactions can hold both sides accountable.

“Criminalizing recordings of this kind by the public is bad policy and infringes on an individual’s rights.”

The reason for setting the arbitrary distances isn’t clear, the paper observed.

“Would a police officer be truly safe from someone with a handgun simply because that person is 100 feet away? Is the officer now made less safe because that same person is using a recording device to document the officer’s actions?”

Another bill before the legislature, which Petersen noted is “not compatible” with the first one, would provide protection to citizens recording police action under their “free speech” rights and make it a  a criminal offense for an officer to destroy a recording seized from a person.

“Police officers operate under significant hazardous conditions at times, and as representatives of the community and the government, their lawful actions need to be protected and their safety preserved,” the paper said.

But it added that these interests should not be at the expense of the legitimate public interest in police transparency and accountability.

“The public and the police are safer when they are each held accountable,” it concluded.

The full paper is available here.

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