Search About Newsletters Donate
A still from video posted to the YouTube account for Houston's chapter of the Peaceful Streets Project, an organization that advocates filming the police.

Why Cops Aren’t Ready for Their Close-Up

A police officer makes the case for keeping your distance.

In March, State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Texas), filed a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for anyone but news media to photograph police within 25 feet (and anyone with a concealed handgun to photograph within 100 feet). Villalba had introduced the legislation after members of Texas law enforcement expressed their concerns about the growing, national effort among activists — who call themselves “cop watchers” or “cop blockers” — to monitor police behavior by filming their every move.

Police officers throughout the country have had mixed reactions to the increased use of cell phones to record their activities; some have even resorted to confiscating cameras and deleting footage. On April 19, a video was uploaded to YouTube that purportedly shows a U.S. Marshal slamming a woman’s phone onto the ground and kicking it after she attempted to record her interaction with officers.

Villalba’s bill was ultimately dropped last week amid criticism that it violated First Amendment rights. Dallas Police Association President Ron Pinkston was among those officers who encouraged the representative to draft the ban. The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with the 30-year veteran police officer about the Walter Scott case; what role, if any, cameras should play in policing; and why he still believes in the 25-foot buffer.

Last spring, the Dallas police alerted officers that a woman associated with the group Cop Block, was reportedly following a specific officer throughout the day. At the time, you said these recordings created a “major officer safety issue.” What is dangerous about filming the police?

When we’re out there dealing with a situation, we don’t know who is filming us. Not all people like the police, and there are a lot of people who would like to harm us. If a cop blocker pulls up behind a squad car and starts filming, you don’t know if they’re part of a criminal episode or are associated with the guy you just stopped. You don’t know if it’s someone back there with a gun or not. And if I’m distracted in any way, then I’m not paying full attention to what I’m handling at the scene. And you have to give 100 percent of your attention, or somebody could get hurt.

We’re not against people filming the police. Film us. We just want them to stand back. Other people have buffers. When you go to city council meetings, even though you have a right to film, you can’t walk right in front of the mayor and take video. It’s to protect his safety. And that’s the same thing we want to do with the officers.

Why would 25 feet be the appropriate distance?

We talked about all different distances. A lot of officers wanted it to be 31 feet because if somebody has a knife, they can run 31 feet and stab you before you have enough time to react. It’s a distance officers always keep in their mind. Representative Villalba came up with that 25-foot rule, and we embraced that. We think that’s a safe buffer zone.

I film my kid playing baseball from 25 feet away. We get home and watch it and it’s a great picture, and you can hear everything. Twenty-five feet isn’t far. My question is: why do you have to be that close? I’d like to hear the argument for why you need to be 5 feet or 10 feet away.

Wouldn’t 25 feet also stop people from filming their own interactions with the police, for example, if they get pulled over?

That was just an oversight. When they initially wrote the bill, the law precluded the person that was part of the interaction from filming. And we said no, if you’re part of the event, you should be able to film the officer. If you’re the driver getting stopped, you should be able to film.

Has there ever been an example where this filming created a situation so distracting that someone got hurt?

Well, we haven’t seen that occur yet. And we don’t want it to ever get to that point. We want to be proactive, and have them put this law into place to protect the citizens, and to protect the officer.

We did a “shoot, don’t shoot” police training scenario in Dallas, and we had the politicians and the media attend. They didn’t know what scenarios we were going to play out. One scenario was a simple criminal trespass. And during the scenario, we had a cop blocker walk up and start filming them, and 50 percent of the time the politician or media person got killed because they got distracted by the filming bystander and turned away from the suspect who had a weapon.

There’s videos where cop watchers in Texas come up and start interacting, saying, “Hey, why’d you park there?” or, “Hey, what’s your badge number?” And they started interfering and drawing attention away from what he’s supposed to be doing. That can get someone killed.

Isn’t that already illegal? It seems like the police could arrest somebody for interfering on obstruction charges, or disorderly conduct, and you wouldn’t need the 25-foot buffer rule.

A lot of people say, “Well, wait to see if they interfere, and then arrest them.” But an officer can’t just stop and go arrest that person, or they totally ignore what they were initially doing.

It only rises to obstruction if it gets to a certain point. And no [district attorney] is going to take a case just because you screamed at the officer. They’re going to want to see the officer or the citizen hurt before they do that, and we can’t wait until that point.

Do you see any positive aspects to people filming the police?

It brings more transparency to what we’re doing. We’re encouraging body cameras. We think that will ease some of the issues going on around the country. And with the body cams, people will be able to actually see the ugliness of society that officers historically have always seen. There are a lot of false complaints made against police. In the past, we just took that abuse. We’ve already had situations in Dallas where people accused officers of things and then dash cams and body cams prove otherwise.

It can be used as evidence by the police, but more of what we’ve seen recently is video being used as evidence against the police. When Villalba said he was dropping his “cop watchers” bill, he said his decision had no connection to a bystander video released just days earlier that showed the death of Walter Scott (Scott was unarmed when he was shot eight times in the back by a South Carolina police officer). What did you think when that video came out?

I thought the guy filming did a great job. There was a fence between him and what was occurring. He had distance. He wasn’t screaming at the police. I think it’s all about giving the officers room to do their job, and in that video he did. He didn’t try to become part of the situation.

As for the officer, a lot of people in this country see a video and they run with it. You have to look at the totality of the information and can’t just rush to judgment. So I’m waiting for the facts to come out. When the trial is over, then I’ll make my determination of what did and didn’t occur. I think the video is one piece of evidence, and we need all the evidence we can get in any criminal situation.

But a video can provide very detailed evidence of what occurred.

I watch football every Sunday, and one video angle makes you think he fumbled the ball, and the other angle shows you he didn’t. Or from one angle you’d think it was a touchdown, but you see the other video and he was a foot away. It’s no different than an eyewitness. You can’t convict somebody just on eyewitness testimony, and you can’t convict somebody just on a video.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.