Santa Ana City Council members might ban their police department from blasting copyrighted music following a recent controversy where an officer played Disney music in an attempt to skirt public accountability.

The possibility of a new law banning the practice at the police department will be up for discussion at the council members’ Tuesday meeting, after one member on the dais, Jonathan Ryan Hernandez, got an up-close look last week at the issue in action. 

Officers investigating a stolen car in the Artesia Pilar neighborhood after 10 p.m. on April 4 started blasting copyrighted music from well-known Disney films to prevent a resident from filming them. 

The move has garnered some national attention, with the Washington Post running a story about the issue last week. 

If copyrighted music is clear enough in the audio to flag, platforms like YouTube or Instagram will strike the videos containing them. 

It’s a practice that appears to be spreading throughout law enforcement agencies nationwide. 

Similar tactics by police have been documented in Beverly Hills and Alameda County, as well as across the country, in Illinois.

Santa Ana police were unsuccessful in their attempt to join in on the practice last week. The video was still available on YouTube as of Sunday evening, uploaded by a local police watchdog channel known as Santa Ana Audits. 

Cpl. Maria Lopez, a spokesperson for the police department, said in a Friday email that an administrative investigation into the incident is underway. 

Santa Ana police union president Gerry Serrano also did not return requests for comment. 

The Santa Ana Audits YouTube channel partakes in a common practice known as First Amendment audits, where from a public space a photographer or videographer – usually an activist, or citizen journalist – will document officers’ activities and then test those officers’ knowledge of their rights when confronted. 

The practice is often aggravating for both parties involved, but filming the police in public is a constitutionally-protected right.

Among those in the neighborhood awakened on April 4 was City Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who walked out to the scene and confronted an officer in an exchange that was also captured on video by Santa Ana Audits, and was later reshared on social media. 

Hernandez – who was also on the scene around the same area when Anaheim police shot and killed his cousin, Brandon Lopez, after a police chase involving Santa Ana police last September – at the time stated publicly he would seek an end to the police practice. 

The public council discussion tomorrow comes at Hernandez’s request.

He said he couldn’t find, in his initial research, any examples of local jurisdictions passing similar policies elsewhere. 

“As far as I’m aware, we would be one of the first cities,” Hernandez said. 

The department has a policy in its manual, Policy 428, which affirms the public’s right to film, but it largely deals with situations in which an officer considers taking the recording device away or arresting the filmer. 

It also states what the public cannot do while filming, which is what police officials in the policy consider to be “interfering.” 

Acts that qualify as interfering include “tampering with a witness or suspect;” “inciting others to violate the law;” or being so close to the law enforcement activity it presents “a clear safety hazard” or disrupts “an officer’s effective communication with a suspect, victim or witness.”

“Officers should exercise restraint and should not resort to discretionary arrests for offenses such as interference with an investigation, failure to comply with a lawful order or disorderly conduct to prevent a member of the public from exercising the right to record members performing their official duties,” the policy manual reads. 

It does not expressly discourage – or prohibit – tactics that more indirectly interfere with the public’s right to film, like playing copyrighted music.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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