I-TEAM: Lawmakers debate bill that could require ‘protective zone’ between police, public

Lawmakers are debating a bill that would require members of the public to give officers more space while they are carrying out their duties.
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 7:09 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Lawmakers are debating a bill that would require members of the public to give officers more space while they are carrying out their duties. While the lawmaker behind the bill says it will ensure safety for everyone, representatives with the ACLU of Louisiana say it could hinder accountability.

A recent encounter in the aftermath of a crash involving a woman’s nephew and an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy might have been prevented if this bill becomes law.

Video obtained by the WAFB I-TEAM shows the woman who was checking on her nephew minutes after the crash repeatedly ask for the deputy’s name and badge number. Later, one of the deputies threatens the woman with arrest as she tries to get video of the damage to the EBRSO unit and at one point, the woman says another deputy on scene grabbed her out of view of the camera and told her she was breaking the law.

RELATED: I-TEAM: Woman threatened with arrest while recording aftermath of deputy-involved wreck

State Representative Mike Johnson, R- Pineville, authored the bill which would require the public to stay 25 feet away from law enforcement officers as they carry out their official duties. He says it is a matter of safety and would only apply in certain situations.

“All it does is if the police officer requests, and it’s not automatic, he has to request that someone back away 25 feet which is less than two car lengths then they should do that,” said Rep. Johnson.

The crime would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 60 days behind bars.

Stephanie L. Willis, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Louisiana, considers 25 feet excessive and says the public should have the right to get closer as long as they are not physically interfering with a crime scene.

While there have been some questionable law enforcement interactions with the public in the past, Willis says ensuring that everyday people have the right to get close enough to get quality video is crucial.

“Our concerns with this bill, in particular, is that number one, it’s vague,” said Willis. “We know that bystander accounts and witness videos and recordings are one of the most important tools of evidence that we have to hold police officers accountable.”

Johnson wants to be clear his bill does not say people cannot record or even ask questions during an officer encounter. He just believes there should be a protective zone while officers do their work. The ACLU argues what members of the public would actually be able to capture at that distance.

“I can film the whiskers on a kitty cat from 25 feet away. I’m sure you can too. Unless you’ve got a flip phone, you can pick it up on your cell phone,” said Rep. Johnson.

”If you’re telling somebody that they need to stay 25 feet away, really what can they record? Of course, there’s the argument that you can zoom in but how far am I really able to zoom in to determine exactly what’s going on,” Willis added.

While the ACLU representatives say they will do whatever they can to fight the bill as it moves through the legislature, the lawmaker behind it says it is easy for someone to pick apart his plan if they have already made up their mind about it.

“If I have a purpose of being against something I can find other arguments but in this case, even trying to take the other side I don’t think the arguments stand up to the reality and the good that this could perhaps have for everybody involved,” Rep. Johnson added.

As for the encounter in this report, the WAFB I-TEAM has learned the deputy’s car that was involved in the crash was not equipped with a dash camera to capture the crash. Only one of the deputies involved in the situation had their body cameras rolling despite being equipped with them. A spokeswoman for the agency confirms the one camera that was activated recorded some of the aftermath of the wreck but somehow did not capture the encounter between deputies and the woman.

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