Bill seeks to protect police, may make holding them accountable harder

Texans’ rights to film police may be under scrutiny after the introduction of House Bill 2918 — a bill outlawing the filming, recording, photographing or documenting of police within a 25-foot radius.

Representative Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, proposed HB 2918in response to increasing police filming issues. Villalba reasoned that, while on duty, police should have the capacity to order citizens to step back to prevent interference. The bill’s intent is to give police an adequate space between citizens and officers during police duties to ensure officers are comfortable and safe.

“I guess with everything going on — everything is kind of heated — but I guess when they see a police officer, they think, ‘Okay something’s going down, he’s a cop, something’s not right,’” said UTSA mechanical engineering senior Steven Shuler. “I do see those videos where (an officer) is trying to arrest somebody — you know the whole crowd is jumping in and they’re around. I guess it kind of does distract (officers) and hinder their job. I could see that.”

Current Texas Penal Code law 38.15 (1) “Interference With Public Duties” prohibits citizens from interfering with law enforcement duties, stating “A person commits an offense if the person with criminal negligence interrupts, disrupts, impedes or otherwise interferes with: (1) a peace officer while the peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law.”

HB 2918 would amend the existing law to include a 180-day jail sentence and a $2,000 fine — classified as a class B misdemeanor — if an individual were to violate the 25-foot legislative rule. For Texans carrying firearms, the bill requires a 100-foot radius and consequences would increase up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“I can understand the need for (HB 2918) because you don’t want to impede the police process, you don’t want anyone to get in the way,” said UTSA public health senior major Alyssa Pope. “I think as long as we’re able to still record from a distance that we can actually see from, then that will be fair.”

The bill does allow “news media” — a radio or television station that holds a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission — to film police within the 25-foot radius, but only if they are acting within the course and scope of their employment. Additional acceptable outlets include weekly newspaper publications and magazines that appear at regular intervals and are made readily available to the public.

However, with recent cases — such as the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Mo. — public interest in holding police accountable has been prevalent, especially through public video recordings. The issue with HB 2918 is whether the bill will limit Texans’ ability to hold police accountable. Under the bill’s current language, as the Breibart Texas explains, any conduct within 25 feet that suggests documentation of police actions could be considered illegal.

Although extreme and unlikely, simply documenting an officer’s badge number or recording a conversation while within 25 feet could be considered a violation of the bill. An additional concern includes who is considered a legitimate news outlet. The bill’s language does not include media sites that are exclusively online, suggesting that representatives for online publications cannot document police activity; likewise, independent journalists and the public are not included in the “news media” exception.

Last year, Bexar County Precinct 4 constables began wearing body cams while Bexar County SAPD implemented a pilot program to test the efficiency of body cameras. Additionally, members of the Bexar County Sheriff’s department are expected to begin wearing body cameras as well, pending a Federal Grant approval, which may lend some indication of increasing transparency between San Antonio police officers and the city’s citizens.

“I think the law seems fair, as we do need to find a balance between allowing police officers to do their jobs, but also allowing civilians to hold them accountable if they feel officers are overstepping their boundaries,” said Pope. “I would only be really concerned if there was a law banning filming of police procedures.”