Do we really need to sketch this out?
Filming cops is *not* a crime (UPDATED)

Andy Carvin
Apr 9, 2015 · 5 min read

…though if Texas State Rep. Jason Villalba had gotten his way, it could’ve become a misdemeanor if you’re within 25 feet of a cop. Contains graphic footage and some questionable illustrations.

UPDATE, 4/10/15: Rep. Villalba has retracted the bill. As he wrote on Twitter, “once it was clear that not all LEO’s [Law Enforcement Officers] supported it, I withdrew it.”

Our original article is below.

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Texas State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas County).

Texas State Rep. Jason Villalba, by BritAE. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

On Tuesday, Rep. Villalba introduced a bill in the Texas State House that according to the Houston Chronicle, “would make private citizens photographing or recording the police within 25 feet of them a class B misdemeanor.” As written, Texas House Bill No. 2918 would exempt FCC-licensed broadcasters, newspapers and magazines that publish at least once a week.

For the rest of us wishing to document police activities? Tough luck.

(If you want to read it for yourself or add your own comments to it, I’ve uploaded it to Legal geeks — have at it.)

The bill — which was by all signs written unironically by Rep. Villalba— comes at a particularly awkward time for police, who are facing pressure from across civil society for a seemingly endless stream of brutality incidents, all too many of which have ended in deaths. Just this week, a policeman in South Carolina was charged with murder after footage surfaced of him shooting Walter Scott in the back multiple times while the man was running away from him.

Again, a warning: these videos are graphic, so view at your own discretion.

Fortunately for the man who recorded the video, Feiden Santana, he doesn’t live in a jurisdiction where such a bill was on the books. If he did, he would’ve had to have remained keenly aware of his distance from the cop. Perhaps he might not have filmed it at all, knowing it was potentially against the law. If it’d been on the books.

At first, it appears Santana is filming from at least 25 away from the cop. Assuming that’s the case, we could consider him filming without criminality. Let me draw this out for you just to make this clear.

As the footage progresses, though, you can see Santana having the courage to keep filming as he comes right up to the fence, just across from where the cops are standing over Walter Scott’s body. By this point — again, assuming this Texas bill had been the law of the land — he’d now be risking arrest.

Again, just to be clear:

The same thing goes for the two people who filmed the death of Eric Garner:

…or the multiple witnesses who filmed the killing of Oscar Grant at a BART station in San Francisco:

Each of these people had the guts to confront law enforcement with cameras. None of them had to worry about how close they were at the time because of some half-ass law. So once again, if that bill had been an actual statute at the time….

Eyewitness Juan Pablo Chico, on the other hand, would’ve been in the clear when he recorded the aftermath of the police shooting Reuben Garcia, because he was more than 25 feet away in his car.

Yet Anthony Blackburn, who filmed the horrifying footage of a homeless man nicknamed Africa being shot by police on Skid Row in Los Angeles, would’ve easily fallen within the 25-foot perimeter.

Can you picture George Halliday, all the way back in 1991, asking himself if his view of police kicking the living shit out of Rodney King would have passed statutory muster? Despite the way your eye can get fooled by his zoom lens, it appears he would’ve been in the clear:

Is it absurd that I spent part of my day creating these infographics? Of course it is. But that’s nothing compared to the absurdity of Texas House Bill No. 2918 itself, or the bone-headed thinking of Rep. Villalba, who somehow concluded that discouraging the filming of police is something our society needs at this moment.

Filming cops isn’t a crime, folks. Even when the actions of police are justified, filming them is a right. And on occasions where police are themselves committing crimes against the people they’re sworn to serve, I’d argue it’s our civic duty.

Rep. Villalba: Is it really worth criminalizing a civic duty?

Special thanks to The Noun Project and the artwork of Tamiko Young, Iconathon, Hrag Chanchanian, Irene Hoffman and Muneer A. Safiah for licensing their work under the Creative Commons — Attribution (CC BY 3.0) license.

Andy Carvin

Written by

Asper visiting professor, UBC School of Journalism. Former Sr Editor-At-Large at NowThis & founder of Author of the book Distant Witness. NPR alum.

the team

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