Bill blocking public release of death recordings a slippery slope for transparency, truth

pulse  memorial 2 (Large)

I will give state Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, the benefit of the doubt that he believes he is doing the right thing by filing HB 661 – a measure that prohibits the public release of video and audio recordings of someone’s death.

Latvala originally filed the measure last October to cover only the release of recordings and video of police officers who died in the line of duty. He expanded that bill Monday to include anyone who was killed, and made it retroactive to cover events that happened in the past.

His reasoning: such video inspires terrorists, as spelled out in the bill’s text:

“The Legislature is gravely concerned and saddened by the horrific mass killings perpetrated at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“In addition to the emotional and mental injury that these photographs and recordings may cause family members, the Legislature is also concerned that dissemination of photographs and video and audio recordings that depict or record the killing of a person is harmful to the public.”

You know what else is harmful to the public? When governments aren’t accountable to the people they allegedly serve. That is particularly true, as we have seen in recent years, with officer-involved shootings.

Cops put their lives on the line daily, and in most cases their use of deadly force appears to be justified. There are cases, though, where we’re just not sure. We saw that in the case of the South Carolina police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man named Walter Davis in April 2015.

The private video shot by a bystander with a cellphone appeared to contradict officer Michael T. Slager’s story that he felt his life was in danger when he shot Davis, who was 17 feet away at the time and running in the opposite direction.

That video, widely distributed on social media, was used as evidence in Slager’s first trial; it ended in a hung jury. What is unclear in Latvala’s proposed bill is what would happen to such video if it was subpoenaed by the prosecution (which likely would happen if a similar case happened here).

Would the person who took the video be liable for felony prosecution, which would be the penalty under this proposal, if they posted the video they shot on social media?

Without contradicting video, we might just have to take the officer’s word for it that he or she felt their life was in danger. It’s an important check and balance.

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation told the Orlando Sentinel about the case of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, 14, who died in 2006 at a juvenile detention center in Bay County.

An autopsy pinned Anderson’s death on a sickle-cell trait disorder. It was only after video surfaced of guards kicking Anderson and making him inhale ammonia that a follow-up autopsy concluded he died of suffocation.

As far as the video inspiring terrorists, I think Latvala is using fear as a rationale to pull the covers a little tighter over transparency.

While it reasonable to argue that terrorism feeds on itself, it’s a stretch to think that such footage would inspire any more carnage than regular coverage of the acts at the Pulse nightclub and the Hollywood airport.

What would Latvala propose: a total news blackout? Just pretend these things didn’t happen? That’s absurd, of course, but once politicians start down that slippery hill of deciding what is none of the public’s business, the absurd has a better chance of becoming reality.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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