The right to photograph: Why police can’t call the shots

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

At crime scenes, the police are in charge.  They can and do tell journalists and the public where to stand so as not to interfere with an ongoing investigation.

Problems arise, though, when the police literally try to call the shots, telling photographers what they can and cannot shoot.

As a former police reporter, I know that this is not a new issue. Oddly enough, most clashes occurred over matters of taste. Police would decide that a car crash or murder scene was too gory to be published and would either block the view or order a photographer not to shoot a picture. Then an editor would call the police chief to remind him that it was the editor’s job to decide what gets published.

Those were simpler times.  Photographers shot still photos and most reporters didn’t pack cameras.

Today video devices are ubiquitous.  Flip video cameras and phones with built-in camcorders mean that almost any image can be captured at any time by anyone.  Good taste is the least of law enforcement’s concerns.

Increasingly, tensions arise when the press or public try to document police activity on video. On July 29, Phil Datz , a freelance cameraman with news credentials, was arrested by police in Suffolk County, Long Island. The video Datz took of the arresting officer — already viewed by about 40,000 people on YouTube — shows a police sergeant ordering him to “go away” even though the journalist is well away from the crime scene.  Neighbors stand nearby and watch the gathering of police and squad cars from a similar distance, but are not disturbed.  Even when Datz  asks for an explanation or suggests contacting the police department’s public information officer, he’s told to leave.  In the end, a squad car pulls up and Datz is arrested.

Ten years ago, the photographer might have been jailed with little public notice. Today the officer’s actions are documented, disseminated and assessed by tens of thousands in perpetuity.  It’s little wonder that Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer quickly announced that he would seek to have the charges dropped.

Under the First Amendment, both the press and public have a right to monitor and speak out about the performance of public officials.  New technology has enhanced that watchdog role, allowing us to see public employees as they do their jobs.

In an interview with Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, news-media attorney Richard Goehler offered this advice:

“Be careful that the place from which you are taping is not interfering with the police, and make sure that your news vehicle and camera equipment are not in the way. … If at the scene, a police officer orders that you move or position yourself in another place so as not to interfere, be prudent and use some good judgment. If you think you are being picked on and these orders are some type of retaliation by the officer, keep your head about you and continue to roll the tape while the officer directs you to another place, but try to keep the situation from escalating to the point where the officer writes you up for interfering with official police business. We may ultimately beat that ticket on a number of grounds, but it will likely mean lawyer time and effort with court appearances, etc.”

In Suffolk County, a new round of media-relations training is being scheduled. That’s a good idea; the era of all-video, all-the-time is just beginning.  Police officers who enforce the law, while respecting the rights of the press and the public, have nothing to be concerned about.  Videos of people doing their jobs well aren’t in big demand on YouTube.

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