Commentary

Filming cops raises questions that Republicans don’t want to answer. So they made filming cops a crime.

August 24, 2022 7:17 am

A protester asks Phoenix police officers why the protest was unlawful on June 23, 2020. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

Why did Arizona’s Republican leaders this year make it a crime to make video recordings of police? 

Why did a retired cop introduce the legislation to throw people in jail for up to 30 days if they used their phones to take video of police officers? Why did every Republican legislator, many of whom are quick to declare they #BackTheBlue even as they call for defunding the FBI, throw their support behind locking up journalists and concerned citizens for documenting police activity? Why did Gov. Doug Ducey, the son of a cop, sign into law a bill that violates First Amendment rights in a comically obvious way?

I don’t think you have to look much farther than the bon mot that has become known as “Wilhoit’s Law” to find the answer: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

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The police exist to protect the in-group from the out-groups. Any effort to question how they do so is so out of bounds as to be heretical — and worthy of more forceful policing. That’s why the conservative support of the Black Lives Matter movement cratered after the conversation turned from recognizing the horror of George Floyd’s death to examining how policing in America is intrinsically biased and in need of systemic reform.

There’s no room for those kinds of introspective questions for today’s conservative movement — if there ever was — because changing how policing is done would necessarily mean reconsidering who is being policed and why. If police forces are the instrument by which the in-group is protected and the out-group is bound by the law, that simply won’t fly.

So now Arizona has a law on the books that gives the police total authority to arrest a person filming them and seize their recording devices for no reason other than the cop doesn’t want to be filmed, then charge them with a crime that carries a sentence of up to 30 days in jail.

No, really. The law singles out video recording — the very tool that captured the Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd and sparked the national conversation about policing — and makes it a crime. All a cop has to do is tell a person who is within eight feet to stop recording first, and then they can be arrested. 

(Proponents said the law was needed because people filming too close to cops is dangerous, ignoring the already existing state and local laws that make interfering with police officers a crime, instead opting for a law that takes aim only at an activity protected by the First Amendment.)

There’s no room for those kinds of introspective questions for today’s conservative movement — if there ever was — because changing how policing is done would necessarily mean reconsidering who is being policed and why.

Can the cop tell a person filming them on a cell phone to stop and then move toward them, putting the person suddenly within the eight-foot bubble and subjecting them to arrest? Yup. 

Can the cop do the same thing if the person is using their cell phone to take still photos? Or audio recording? Or anything else? Nope.

It doesn’t get much more un-American than that. Courts have long recognized that the First Amendment protects not only the publication of news, but also the methods of gathering it. And those protections aren’t unique to journalists: They apply to every American.

That’s why the Arizona Mirror and our parent company, States Newsroom, leaped at the chance to join a coalition of news organizations to sue the State of Arizona in federal court on Tuesday to block this law from ever going into effect. No one in our great state should ever face jail time for filming the police doing their jobs, and our police shouldn’t be afraid of being held accountable for how they do those jobs.

The work that the Mirror and other media entities have done, and continue to do, ensures that Arizonans know what their public servants are up to and that they will be held accountable. 

Lawyers aren’t cheap, but the stakes are too high and the consequences of choosing only to complain from the sidelines after someone faces jail time demands that we put our money where our mouth is and fight for what is right. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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