By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
A story in today’s Houston Chronicle raises questions about whether Houston police acted to prevent a by-stander from using a cell phone to make a video recording at the scene when Rufino Lara died after being shot by an officer.
“Transparency would be aided if the police department, as reported, had not seized the cell phone of a witness who was trying to record a video at the scene,” said ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke. “It’s a shame we can’t see the video the witness reportedly tried to make. Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland has asked for the public to withhold judgment about the shooting. The right of Texans to record police activity in a manner that does not interfere with police work is an important protection against abuses of power by the government. The behavior of some members of the local police department might be less suspect if officers showed more respect for the Constitution, and, in this instance, the First Amendment.”
News reports about differences between police accounts and those of eyewitnesses indicate a bystander’s phone was seized by police when he tried to video the scene and that an officer told him not to record anything.
ACLU of Texas Legal Director Rebecca Robertson noted, “Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places.”
Victims, police and suspects can all benefit from video documentation, added Burke.