Posts Tagged ‘police’


Police erasing evidence: Men in black (and blue)

What is up lately with a few of the men (and women) in blue acting like they are the Men in Black?

SPJ is tracking the outcome of an internal affairs investigation in Memphis where a local photojournalist contends police tried to prevent him from taking photos and video of a local businessman being arrested in a case that started with a parking violation.

See the story here, as reported by Memphis television station ABC24.

I sent a letter to the Memphis Police Director earlier this month expressing our deep concerns over the allegations.

What’s more troubling though is that this isn’t the first instance where police have been accused of erasing photographs or video of officers making an arrest.

In Baltimore, there is a case making its way through the courts involving a citizen who made a similar complaint about police deleting video he took of a police encounter with his friend at near a race track in 2010.

The U.S. Justice Department last month intervened in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Baltimore man and stood up for a citizen’s right to record police actions in public places.

“The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution,” the Justice Department stated“They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our government officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”

These two incidents are hardly a trend, and in my view, most law enforcement officers are professionals who know better than to destroy images that could be considered private property or perhaps even evidence.

But they remind me of the running gag in “Men in Black,” where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones keep using their flash pen to erase the memory of what an eyewitness has seen.

It’s no laughing matter when a police officer goes beyond simply impounding a camera and takes the extraordinary step of deleting its contents.

Rightly or wrongly, such an action leaves the public with the impression that the officers have something to hide.

We live in a world where so many people have the capability of taking a picture or video with the cell phone in their pocket.

This is good when it comes to breaking news events. For law enforcement, it can also provide valuable evidence when a crime occurs.

We will monitor how the Memphis case turns out. We’ve also offered our help in starting dialogue with police on the First Amendment issues involved.

Whatever comes of  these cases in Baltimore and Memphis, let’s hope this is more an aberration than a trend.

Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

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.

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{democracy:5}

 

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