The right to film arrests must be protected

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Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds up his cell phone as he speaks about citizens' ability to record police-officer involved violence at the Village Leadership Academy during a campaign stop in Chicago on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds up his cell phone as he speaks about citizens’ ability to record police-officer involved violence at the Village Leadership Academy during a campaign stop in Chicago on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Arizona state Sen. John Kavanagh proposed a bill Jan. 8 that would criminalize filming a police officer within 20 feet in public or in the same room of a private residence. According to Senate Bill 1054, citizens must request permission from the officer in order to legally record them within that 20-foot radius. Failure to receive permission from an officer and recording them anyway would result in a Class 3 misdemeanor that can be punished by up to 30 days in jail and fines of up to $500.

Kavanagh argued that this proposed bill’s main intent is to create safety for both officers and innocent bystanders that may be recording an arrest. He claimed that recording an arrest can distract an officer, in turn risking the mishandling of a situation. It could also put bystanders within 20 feet at risk if the arrest becomes violent. This law would also only be specific to third-party recorders.

Unsurprisingly, this proposed bill has been met with sharp criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has issued statements decrying the bill as unconstitutional and in direct opposition to the First Amendment. Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU, has warned that the proposed bill is a danger to the liberty of Arizona citizens.

“It’s an important right in a democracy to see what law enforcement is doing, and this would infringe on that right by definition,” Pochoda said.

Professor Paul Bender of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University shared the ACLU’s opposition of the proposed bill. He said the bill gives police an unnecessary increase in power.

“On the face of it (the bill is) unconstitutional,” O’Connor said. “(It is) giving the cop an enormous amount of discretion to stop you photographing what the cop doesn’t want. He might be doing something wrong.”

Kavanagh responded to proponents of the bill by completely denouncing the legitimacy of their arguments.

“The reason it is constitutional (is) because our constitution says you can limit certain rights if the limit is reasonable,” Kavanagh said. He also said when a citizen records an officer within 20 feet and without their permission it limits an officer’s ability to carry out his or her job.

Kavanagh recalled an instance in the early 1970s when he was a police officer and was distracted while searching “In the Midnight Hour” singer Wilson Pickett. The senator said that while he was attempting to arrest Pickett after finding syringes in his jewelry case, he was distracted by the many bystanders that were standing too close. According to Kavanagh, an ex-Port Authority officer told him that Pickett discarded a package of heroin while Kavanagh was not looking.

“I’ll never forget how I was distracted by someone being behind me while I was making an arrest,” Kavanagh said.

In a time where police misconduct continues to be revealed through video footage time and time again, it’s not only bizarre but also foolhardy for Kavanagh to propose such a bill.

Beyond the fact that it infringes on the First Amendment rights of Arizona civilians, he just doesn’t have any logical evidence to back its argument. Footage of arrests, be they with dash cams or from smart phones, have had a clear effect on exposing disorderly officers and reminding other officers that they are not above the law when they engaging with or arresting civilians.

Kavanagh’s only evidence that such a law would merit limiting the First Amendment is drawn from his own experience. The allegedly botched arrest of Pickett occurred in the early 1970s. This bill seems less spurred by a real problem and more of an attempt at self-redemption nearly five decades later.

Though some may argue that this bill serves as a compromise between watchful bystanders and dutiful officers due to its suggestion that it is acceptable for bystanders to record officers from beyond 20 feet, this simply isn’t the case. Kavanagh argues that smart phones have high definition video recording that can still catch misconduct while still giving officers a space in which they can perform their job accordingly. This mindlessly assumes that all bystanders carry new smart phones that have these high definition cameras. That mindlessness is especially bolstered when one considers that people of color are more likely to be subjected to police violence. These same people of color are statistically more likely to live in lower income areas where high smart phones with nice cameras aren’t readily available to everyone.

Though Kavanagh may have good intentions in his proposition of this bill, it is evident the proposal is unnecessary. He is proposing a bill that gives a solution to a something that has yet to show it is a consistent problem and he is supporting it with personal experience only.

The First Amendment has played an important role in exposing police violence. Kavanagh’s bill to limit this right is not only unconstitutional but it is a large step backwards in maintaining accountability of the police.