By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | November 15th, 2011
We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.
-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.
-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.
-Also in October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.
-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.
-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.
-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.
I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.
Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.
But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.
I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.
So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.
And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.
First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.
What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.
Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.
What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.
A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.
Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.
And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.
Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.
But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.