HARTFORD — When East Haven police officers arrested a Catholic priest who was videotaping them in 2009, it sparked calls for the state legislature to better protect the public’s right to record the actions of law enforcement officials.
Five years later, additional safeguards to that right have yet to make it to the governor’s desk. Bills approved in the Senate died in the House in 2011 and 2012. Legislation last year failed to make it to a House or Senate vote.
Supporters of the proposal launched another effort this year and pushed a bill through the Judiciary Committee, which approved the legislation two weeks ago on a 27-12 vote. Now they’re waiting again for the Senate and House to act.
“It’s an important bill because it would memorialize the public’s right to videotape law enforcement,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “Many police officers in Connecticut have given the public a difficult time about recording from a safe distance, which is a violation of the First Amendment.”
Current law already allows people to record police from a safe distance, but the bill would take it a step further by allowing people to sue officers who interfere with the recording of their actions. There are exemptions that would allow police to block recordings to protect public safety, preserve the integrity of crime scenes and protect crime victims’ privacy.
Some police officers and other critics say the bill would embolden people to get too close to crime and accident scenes and put the public and police in danger by distracting officers. They also say it would make it easier to sue cities, towns and the state, potentially costing them millions of dollars.
“No one says they don’t have a right to videotape police officers on their jobs,” said Sgt. Richard Holton, president of the Hartford Police Union. “But ... it opens a Pandora’s box for cities and towns. It just opens the door to frivolous lawsuits.”
In the East Haven case, the Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven was arrested while video-recording two officers in a store owned by a Hispanic couple in an attempt to document police abuses against Hispanics.
The officers, David Cari and Dennis Spaulding, said in their reports that Manship was holding an “unknown shiny silver object” and struggled with one of the officers who tried to take it from him, but the pastor’s video showed Cari knew Manship was holding a camera.
Charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with police against Manship were dropped. Cari, Spaulding and two other East Haven officers were later sentenced to prison time in a federal investigation of mistreatment of Latinos.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, has been pushing the police recording bill the past few years.
“Citizens have a right to record police officers,” he said at a Judiciary Committee public hearing in February. “However, there have been recent incidents in which officers harassed and threatened citizens who were attempting to exercise that right.”
Looney added, “Creating a possible cause of (legal) action against officers who attempt to intimidate citizens in this manner would serve as a deterrent to this behavior.”