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Hartford — A bill that would open police officers to civil lawsuits if they interfere with a person who is photographing or videotaping them in the course of duty passed the state Senate Thursday.
The vote was 24-11, with Sens. Andrea Stillman of Waterford, Edith Prague of Columbia and Eileen Daily of Westbrook in favor of it. Sen. Andrew Maynard of Stonington was absent. The bill heads to the House.
Proponents said the legislation protects a citizen’s right to monitor law enforcement and peace officers in action.
In introducing the bill, state Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, recalled both the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police of Rodney King and a 2009 incident involving the Rev. James Manship, a Catholic priest who was arrested by East Haven police while recording officers harassing Latino business owners.
Manship’s story precipitated a federal investigation that resulted this year in the arrest of four East Haven officers on charges of false arrest, obstruction of justice and using excessive force against Latinos.
“Sometimes we become aware of incidents where police officers have been overzealous or abusive and not act in a very complimentary way towards the citizens who deserve to be served and protected,” Coleman said.
The legislation includes four broad exemptions. An officer would not be held liable if he or she reasonably believed that stopping the photography or video recording was necessary to enforce a law, protect public safety or preserve the integrity of a crime scene or investigation; or to safeguard the privacy interests of a crime victim or other person.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, public safety Commissioner Reuben Bradford and the Hartford Police Union all testified against the bill at a public hearing last month.
Bradford raised concerns about video recordings compromising evidence in a case and exposing witnesses to problems if their images are made public.
“Police officers need to be able to do their jobs without being subjected to statutory civil liability,” he said in written testimony.
On Thursday, Republicans tried without success to attach three amendments to the bill.
The first, offered by Sen. Kevin Witkos, a sergeant in the Canton Police Department, called for an additional liability exemption if a person intended to “inconvenience or alarm” an officer in the performance of duty.
Witkos said he supported the underlying principle of the bill but wanted to make sure there were safeguards against ill-intentioned videographers who seek to interfere with police.
“I do believe that the public has a right, if they’re not in the way of a police officer doing their job, of filming all they want,” he said.
But Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the Witkos amendment would create too large a loophole. “It really would render the bill without meaning,” he said.
Looney also noted that interfering with an officer is already a crime and would remain so.
The other failed amendments would have exempted Capitol building police from liability and would have shifted the burden of proof onto the person bringing a lawsuit.
State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, called the legislation an overreaction to the Manship situation in East Haven that would invite a flood of lawsuits to local police departments.
“You have an amateur videographer stepping into a very high-energy, difficult situation, and they don’t belong there,” he said.
A similar bill did not pass the General Assembly last year.