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Lawmaker Pulls ‘Don’t Photograph Cops’ Law

DALLAS (CN) - Days after a white police officer in South Carolina was charged with murder for shooting an unarmed black man, a Texas lawmaker dropped a much-criticized bill that would ban citizens from photographing police.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said Friday he will not seeks a public hearing for House Bill 2918. The bill, filed on March 10, criminalizes recording police within 25 feet of an officer and within 100 feet if the person is armed.

Violators would have been guilty of a Class B misdemeanor. The only exception was for journalists with traditional radio, television, newspaper and magazine outlets. Nontraditional journalists, such as bloggers, would have been barred.

Villalba said he filed the bill because his "brothers/sisters in blue" asked for it.

"I did what I could to help," he said. "I will always stand by the good men and women in blue who sacrifice each day to ensure the safety of my family and yours."

Villalba pulled his bill after speaking with law enforcement organizations, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

His bill faced renewed criticism after North Charleston, S.C., officer Michael Slager shot to death Walter Scott, 50, during a traffic stop on April 4.

Slager claimed he feared for his life after Scott grabbed his Taser, but a video taken by a bystander shows Scott running away from Slager. Slager fired eight shots at the fleeing Scott, striking him five times and killing him.

Villalba said HB 2918 was first proposed by the Dallas Police Association and the Texas Municipal Police Association.

TMPA executive director Kevin F. Lawrence told Courthouse News the group "would have dearly loved" to see the bill get "a full and thorough vetting," but that other groups "decided to do their grandstanding."

"The issue for us is not the video recording - we support anyone who wants to videotape officers doing their jobs," Lawrence said Saturday. "The issue for us is the interference with officers doing their duties. As [first vice president of the Dallas Police Association] Frederick Frazier has said several times, these situations become more dangerous when the officers have to split their attention between the instant situation and the onlookers. The onlookers need to maintain a safe distance whether they are recording the event or not."

TMPA recommended Villalba amend the bill to address the "interference issue," Lawrence said. He said the group's support for the bill has not changed as a result of the South Carolina case.

"In fact, we believe that situation supports our position. Citizens should feel free to videotape situations like that as part of the checks and balances that are necessary in our form of government," Lawrence said. "And officers should assume that they are always being recorded. But officers are human beings and are therefore subject to human frailties. Expecting them to deal with already stressful situations while onlookers crowd in screaming at and berating them simply should not be tolerated."

The 5th Circuit has yet to rule on the legality of filming police, but several nonbinding rulings from other federal appeals courts deem the practice legal.

A federal magistrate in February dismissed a Texas man's lawsuit against the City of Austin after he was arrested for taking photographs of police while performing a traffic stop, finding that he did not establish that his constitutional rights had been violated.

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