Cop: You’re Arrested For Videotaping Us
Nov 11, 2010 12:16 pm
In the midst of swirling controversy about cops and cameras, Luis Luna was put under arrest for filming police in action—not by a rogue patrolman misunderstanding official department policy, but by none other than the assistant chief of police.
According to a police report, his arrest was ordered by Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez, who had told him not to film police breaking up a fight. Read the report here.
Luna said police took his iPhone from him and erased the video he had made. He was charged with interfering with police and spent the night in jail.
Arrestee brandishes his police-sanitized weapon.
He reiterated his previous statements that it is not illegal to film police. The chief has made those statements in response to recent complaints of police interfering with people’s right to photograph or videotape police in public places. The department is currently investigating several incidents in which police allegedly ordered people to put away camera phones or even snatched them out of people’s hands.
Video of one of these incidents, on Sept. 10 on Crown Street, shows an officer saying “You don’t take pictures of us,” before taking a camera from a man who was recording footage of an arrest in progress. Click the play arrow to watch that clip.
The cops-and-cameras complaints are part of a larger controversy involving allegations of physical and verbal abuse by New Haven police. The charges stem largely from “Operation Nightlife,” the police crackdown on clubs on Crown Street that began in September in response to a downtown shootout that left two hospitalized. The operation included an Oct. 2 raid on a private Yale party, using SWAT cops. That raid—overseen by Assistant Chief Melendez—prompted an outcry from Yale students who felt their rights were violated.
Luna said he feels his rights were violated too.
Here’s what he said happened on Sept 25, on the first night of Operation Nightlife:
Luna, who works at a Verizon call center in Wallingford, had been hanging out with some friends at Anna Liffey’s bar on Whitney Avenue. When the bar closed at 2 a.m., he hopped on his bike and went looking for something to eat. As he pedaled down Crown Street, he saw officers arresting three people on College Street just south of Crown, alongside Co-op Arts and Humanities High School. He got off his bike, walked it over to about 25 feet away from the action, took out his iPhone and started filming.
Luna, originally from Ecuador, is a member of a group called Copwatch New Haven. The group organizes activism against police brutality. He also works with Unidad Latina En Accion, a Latino advocacy group.
Assistant Chief Melendez noticed Luna and approached him “in a very intimidating manner,” Luna recalled. He asked what Luna was doing.
“I said, ‘Filming,’” Luna recalled. “He grabbed my phone and walked away.”
Melendez ordered officer Kristen Fitzgerald to arrest Luna for interfering.
“I just could not believe it,” Luna said.
The police put him up against the wall of the school next to the three men he’d just been filming being arrested. They turned out to be Marines just back from Iraq. Luna said he was fully cooperative with police, who searched him and took his bag and bike.
As he was being loaded into the police wagon, Luna asked Melendez, “Where’s my cell phone?” he recalled.
“What are you talking about?” the chief responded, according to Luna.
“I thought I’d never see it again,” Luna said.
He was taken to the police station. In the morning he spoke to the bail commissioner, who reduced his original bail of $5,000 to a promise to appear.
While he was in jail, one of the marshals came to his cell and said his phone had been dropped off. When Luna got it back he found that two videos had been erased. In their place was a single photograph (pictured) of what appears to be police feet on a concrete floor. Luis said he thinks police took the picture by accident when they erased the videos he made.
A brief arrest report written by Officer Fitzgerald confirms the outline of Luna’s story. She writes that police were arresting three combatants when Luna rode up on his bike.
“He began taking pictures and filming. Asst. Chief Melendez approached Mr. Luna and asked him to leave as well as stop filming. Mr. Luna did not do so. Therefore, Chief Melendez instructed me to arrest Mr. Luna,” Fitzgerald wrote.
“It’s not our policy to arrest people for filming,” Chief Limon said in a conversation Wednesday. “As a general principal, it is not illegal to video.”
Chief Limon said the department is currently writing a policy on camera use with the assistance of the city corporation counsel. He declined to comment on why Melendez would have ordered Luna’s arrest. He said he has not looked at the details of the incident.
Asked about the ongoing internal affairs (IA) investigations into other complaints stemming from Operation Nightlife, Chief Limon said IA is concluding its interviews with the officers involved and hopes to wrap things up by the first or second week of December.
Limon declined to share what IA has so far discovered. He said he’s waiting until the probes are complete. “I really don’t dive into investigations.”
Chief Limon confirmed that Melendez was in charge when SWAT cops were sent into Elevate on Oct. 2. “We can say this, he was responsible in terms of the operation.”
Limon declined to say, as the mayor has said, that it was a mistake to send in SWAT. The chief said he’s waiting until the investigation into the incident is complete before passing judgment.
On Oct. 8, Luna appeared in Superior Court on Elm Street to answer to the charge of interfering.
“I approached the prosecutor and he said they would drop my charges and that I would have to pay a fine for creating a public disturbance,” Luna said. Luna said he thought to himself that he shouldn’t have to pay anything, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. But the prosecutor told him he probably wouldn’t qualify for a public defender, Luna said. He said when he asked where he might find a lawyer, he was referred to the yellow pages.
Without the time or money to fight the case, Luna decided to agree to the deal. He was charged with the lesser crime of creating a public disturbance.
When the judge asked if he was guilty, he said no, Luna recalled. “The judge explained I have to plead guilty,” he said. “At that moment when I said I’m guilty, I felt like I was going against myself.”