On Wednesday Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney testified to the Judiciary Committee that police officers doing their jobs appropriately should have no reason to object to citizens photographing them at work.
“It is difficult to understand how a police officer has any expectation of privacy in his or her public duties,” he said in written testimony.
The remarks came in support of a bill that would ensure the right of members of the public to photograph or record police so long as they don’t obstruct their 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 comes after controversy in Looney’s home city of New Haven, where residents have recently been arrested after photographing police. One man, Luis Luna, was arrested by New Haven’s Assistant Police Chief Ariel Melendez.
But on Wednesday Looney said it was incidents like one that occurred in nearby East Haven that got him working on the bill.
There, a Roman Catholic priest in a convenience store recorded an exchange between an officer and the shopkeeper, he said. When the officer noticed the camera, he confiscated it and later said he saw something shiny that could have been a weapon, Looney said.
But in the priest’s video, later published on the web, the officer can clearly be heard referring to the object as a camera.
“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.
That’s not how Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane sees it, however. He said the bill may have some unintended consequences. Kane employed some hypothetical situations to illustrate his point.
It’s not uncommon for a crime to be solved because of crime scene details known only to the offender, so police frequently keep those details confidential, he said. Could an officer who stops someone from photographing the scene be sued under the bill, he asked.
Kane said he recognized that some recent isolated incidents may have given rise to the legislation but said the bill fails to adequately define what constitutes interference.
Looney said the definition is not as vague as opponents seem to think. The measure applies to the circumstances where police seem to be treating the act of filming as a crime, he said.
Chiefs Anthony Salvatore and James Strillacci of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association also expressed concern about the breadth of the bill but told the Judiciary Committee that cameras have become so common they instruct all their officers to always assume they’re being videotaped.
Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Sandra J. Straub said the bill not only helps protect First Amendment rights, it preserves a safeguard against potential police misconduct.
“When police officers know their actions are likely being recorded they have an incentive to be on their best behavior whenever they deal with the public because recordings creates a genuine threat that the police misconduct will be reported and taken seriously,” she said in written testimony.
As a result, the recordings may actually strengthen relationships between police and the communities they serve, she said. The public may feel even the best behaved officers have something to hide if they refused to be recorded, she said.
In some situations being recorded may even help police officers defend themselves against misconduct claims, Straub said.
Megan Fountain from the group New Haven Against Police Brutality had similar reasons for supporting the bill. In her written testimony she cited police misconduct in the city, specifically one officer, who she said has been accused nine times of brutality but remains on the force.
“Video recordings are the only tool that powerless victims can use to get a fair hearing in court,” she said, adding that good police officers have nothing to fear from them.
But Deborah J. Fuller of the state’s Judicial Branch External Affairs Division expressed concerns about how the bill would impact judicial marshals. Currently photography is only allowed inside courtrooms in specific situations, usually only after being approved by a judge. Marshals are charged with enforcing these rules.
Fuller said the bill is written so broadly that since marshals are peace officers, if they tried to stop someone from taking pictures or video inside a courtroom, they may open themselves up to civil action.