El Grito de Sunset Park sounds off on the Right to Record Act

One Sunset Park group — known for filming encounters between civilians and the police — has a great deal to say about new legislation whose goal is to make it easier for civilians to film such encounters, and not all of it is good.

Following videos that captured the shooting and deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Philandro Castile in Minnesota, Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams was joined by  local dignitaries and advocates from several organizations on Thursday, July 14 to introduce the Right to Record Act.

The new bill will prohibit police officers from interfering with, or intimidating individuals from recording their activities, and establishes a cause of action for violating the act.

“The Right to Record Act is a response to several instances where people, who were recording police activity — which is their constitutional right — were either arrested on trumped-up charges, detained or had their property damaged for exercising their constitutional right,” said Williams.

However, Dennis Flores, the founder of El Grito de Sunset Park, an organization that records police activity, isn’t pleased with the new bill. “There’s no need for a law. It already exists,” said Flores. “It’s already part of the guideline or law not to be arrested for filming, so it feels toothless.”

Flores believes further action must be taken to ensure violent incidents don’t continue. “If there’s no penalty or real discipline, no one has the power to punish these cops,” he said.

Photo courtesy of El Grito de Sunset Park
Photo courtesy of El Grito de Sunset Park

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca disagreed. “The right to record police interactions in public spaces is a constitutional right that we must defend like the other rights afforded to us under the First Amendment,” he said. “I strongly believe that the ability to record leads to more safety and greater accountability on behalf of the police and community members.”

Flores and El Grito have filmed several incidents, including one involving a street vendor after a Sunset Park street festival in September, 2014. “At 5 p.m., the festival ended. The family of the street vendors was selling fruit. At 5:05, because they didn’t pack up fast enough, officers were recorded on video cursing and asking for identification,” Flores said. “But you don’t have to give it if you’re not suspected of committing a crime.”

According to Flores, one of the women was thrown to the floor, kicked, and arrested by officers. “Luckily, we recorded that. Eventually charges were dropped because of our video,” he said, adding that Police Commissioner William Bratton showed footage of El Grito’s recording during a meeting. “He had 500 of the top brass in the meeting. He said that this is the racist and brutal one percent of bad apples. But he hasn’t weeded them out.”

Flores believes that while progress in being made in the 72nd Precinct, due to its new commanding officer, Captain Emmanuel Gonzalez, there’s still progress to be made. “It’s sad because the new captain in the 72 is doing very progressive and good things,” he said. “But his hands are tied because he has inherited problems that existed before him and that are still here and if something happens, he unfairly gets the blame.”

Under the legislation, the NYPD will be required to submit to the mayor and City Council  a report that includes data on the number of arrests and criminal and civil summons issued.

Flores believes change must be more drastic, as currently, he contends, police officers who exceed their authority get only a slap on the wrist. “There’s no enforcement. It’s window dressing until the proper rules are in place,” he said. “Pressure needs to be put on the police department,” he said. “The City Council has no authority over police discipline. The power [to mete out punishment for such infractions] needs to be taken away from the police commissioner.”

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