On September 25, 2010, Luis Luna was arrested. His crime? Filming a police officer. Yes, when Luna used his iPhone to record several arrests being made on Crown Street by then-NHPD Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez, his phone was confiscated and he was placed under arrest. Melendez ordered another officer to erase the video on Luna’s phone. Luna then spent the night in jail.
In the weeks after Luna’s arrest, an internal affairs investigation found that Melendez violated NHPD rules when he arrested Luna. The charge against Luna — “interfering with police” — was eventually dismissed. Melendez resigned several months later.
This case was not unique. Four Yale students were threatened with arrest at the October 2010 Elevate raid, also for interfering with police (in other words, filming them). Luna’s case is notable, however, because the arresting officer was of such a high rank. Melendez was “not an ordinary beat cop,” Luna’s lawyer, Max Simmons, told the New Haven Independent. “This is a person who’s in a position to set policy.”
The policy of arresting citizens for filming or photographing cops should never be set. The act of recording police activity merely serves to hold the police accountable. Taking pictures or filming video of public activity — even of cops — is clearly protected under the First Amendment. Simply, the public has a right to see — and document — what the police are doing. Arrests like Luna’s have since been condemned by Mayor John DeStefano and, of course, the Connecticut ACLU.
But condemnation is not enough. Because of actions like Melendez’s, the arrests and harrassment of those recording police activity have quickly become institutionalized. As The New Haven Independent reported, when Southern Connecticut State University student James Kelly was seen filming the police, one cop threatened him with violence, while another grabbed his camera and told him, “you don’t take pictures of us.” Action is clearly needed to combat this mentality.
Apparently, State Senator Martin Looney (D-New Haven) agrees. Last week, the state legislature held a hearing on a bill sponsored by Looney that would give citizens a statutory right to sue the police if they are prevented from recording police activity. This bill would undoubtedly help to assure citizens the right to film and photograph police activities.
When Looney proposed a similar bill last year, it failed to gain passage in the House. Many lawmakers expressed fears that filming an arrest or other police action could impinge upon the privacy of a victim or even those being arrested. This is a valid concern, but fear over the impingement of privacy in some cases should not prevent the protection of civil liberties in all cases. Provided that those filming are not legitimately interfering with the police investigation, it is their fundamental right — enshrined in the First Amendment — to document public activity.
This bill must not fail a second time. In addition to helping citizens sue in the event that they are wrongfully arrested for filming the police, the law would serve an even more important purpose. It would chip away at the mentality, engendered by cops like Melendez, that “you don’t take pictures of us.” It would demonstrate to cops that filming or photographing police actions is unquestionably legal.
As citizens, we should be grateful for police officers that put their lives on the line every day to protect us. However, this gratitude does not translate to blind trust in the police. Everyone in a free society — even those who guard that free society — should be held accountable for their actions. As Horace wrote in his Satires, “Who will guard the guards?” We will! And this bill would further allow us to do so.
Because of the possibility of civil action already on the books, South Windsor Police Chief Matt Reed told the Shoreline Times that, though he supports the proposed bill in theory, “I don’t think it’s necessary … I don’t think it needs to be statutory.”
It does need to be statutory, not just to further assure citizens the right to legal recourse. This law would do much to prevent these wrongful arrests in the first place.
Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.