Legislators Trying To Shield Cops From Accountability Are Running Into Unexpected Opposition: Cops

Police misconduct has never been more visible, thanks to the internet and advancements in cell phone technology. Between this and increased use of public records requests, there’s a wealth of information surfacing daily on the misdeeds of law enforcement personnel. In theory, this should be raising the level of accountability. In practice, however, it’s a different story.

This transparency and accountability — what there is of it — has been forced onto unreceptive law enforcement agencies by the public, rather than led by government officials. While there have been some encouraging signs that legislators and courts aren’t as willing to cut misbehaving officers the generous amount of slack they’re used to, there are still several striving to shield abusive cops from public accountability. This isn’t surprising. Government bodies almost always tend towards self-preservation and increased opacity. Proposing bills that further distance police officers from public accountability serves both purposes.

What is surprising is who’s pushing back against these legislative efforts.

In Arizona, legislators are pushing a bill that would prevent the release of information on officers involved in shootings for sixty days. According to a hyperbolic Sen. John Kavanaugh, increased opacity is the only way to keep officers safe.

“The simple fact remains that we live in a world where misinformation can put everybody in jeopardy, especially police officers,” state Sen. John Kavanagh said this week. “And until we get those facts straight, we need to shield those cops and their families from being assassinated by lunatics or political zealots.”

Kavanaugh’s rationale explicitly states that it’s ok for officers to “assassinate” members of the public and hide behind this legal shield for two months — until everyone gets their stories (a.k.a. “facts”) “straight.” Not that suspects in shootings of officers would receive the same courtesy, even if the reported “facts” turn out to be just “misinformation.”

The local police union, of course, stands with Kavanaugh.

Police unions support the measure that is on Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk, calling it a common-sense idea based strictly on safety.

The bill does not preclude “the community’s right and desire to know what their police department is doing,” said Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.

Well, except for the part where the community is “precluded” from knowing anything about officers involved in shootings for sixty days… on top of whatever obfuscation is already standard operating procedure. The union may claim to speak for Arizona cops, but top Arizona cops are very much opposed to the legislation the union supports.

[P]olice chiefs say the proposal would serve only to hamper their ability to manage complex police-community relations, and they are asking the governor to veto the measure…

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor wrote to Gov. Doug Ducey in his role as president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police urging the veto…

“And the one resounding message that has come out from that is that we need to build and repair the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Villasenor said. “Enacting legislation that would hamper that trust by not allowing officers’ names to be released is not in my opinion the best way to improve or repair that level of trust.”

Those actually involved in day-to-day police work seem to know this bill won’t “fix” anything. Police union heads — much less involved in the reality of policing — either don’t know how harmful this legislation is or (far more likely) just don’t care. Those who have to deal with the public directly — police chiefs who issue statements, hold press conferences and are ultimately responsible for their officers’ actions — are all too aware of how this looks to those being locked out by this legislation.

Over in Texas, where legislator Jason Villalba is trying to make filming police from anywhere inside a 25-foot “halo” illegal, is also receiving pushback from unexpected opponents: Texas’ police unions.

Villalba’s bill was set to have a hearing Thursday, his 44th birthday, but he withdrew the bill from the committee agenda. That came a day after he heard complaints from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

[Association director Charley] Wilkison, whose group boasts more than 18,500 members, said the proposal is unnecessary and dangerous. Now, he said, Texas’ 76,000 licensed peace officers have discretion on where to cordon off a crime scene.

Setting limits as Villalba has proposed would be “worse for the rank-and-file,” and hard to enforce, Wilkison said, quipping, “so the officer’s going to have a tape measure at the scene?”

This opposition, however, isn’t as interested in the public’s rights or officers’ relationships with estranged communities as it would first appear. Wilkison calls the legislation “dangerous,” but his wording suggests it’s the recording of police from close range that’s actually problematic, rather than the bill’s limits on First Amendment rights. The key word in this statement is “discretion,” as Carlos Miller at Photography is Not a Crime points out.

[T]he Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which consists of several police unions throughout the state, making it the largest police union in Texas, realized that the bill could backfire on them by giving citizens a solid argument that they are allowed to record from 25 feet.

As it is now, police are under the impression that they could create an arbitrary buffer between themselves and citizens with cameras by ordering them to move down the block where they are unable to record anything.

The unexpected opposition is still closely aligned with the interests of law enforcement, rather than the public’s. A codified 25-foot filming radius would take away oft-abused charges like obstruction or interference from police officers who would rather not have their actions recorded.

The most surprising aspect of the union’s public disapproval is that it’s willing to risk damaging a relationship with a very LEO-friendly legislator. This indicates that nearly-limitless police “discretion” is far more valuable to the union (and its members) than an easily-steered legislator.

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