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Photographing Police is a Dangerous Business

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 23rd, 2011 · On Second Thought
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Are increasingly militarized local police — helmets, assault rifles, black uniforms and boots, etc. — using excessive force more often than previous generations?

Or has technology — cell phones and YouTube — made any use of force, whether excessive or justified, easier to document?

A classic example shows Oakland, Calif., police beating an unresisting Occupy demonstrator. Initial images show him facing officers with his hands in his pockets. As he backs away, he is beaten so savagely that his spleen was injured and he required surgery. It’s all online.

Maybe it’s reaching too far, but online images of forceful police confrontations with peaceful students and Occupy Wall Street protesters might do what Al Jazeera satellite images did to spread and support “Arab Spring.” It could give voice to the disorganized protests against growing inequities and their costs in American society today.

Diop Kamau, a former officer, runs the Florida-based Police Complaint Center, which investigates allegations of police abuse nationwide. "Police are now facing an onslaught of scrutiny because everyone has a cellphone," he told the London Observer. If you don’t believe it, check the Internet for the past week’s photos of cops using pepper spray on Occupy demonstrators across the nation.

To the untrained eye, any use of force can appear excessive, especially if we can’t imagine doing anything that would warrant Mace, pepper spray or physical restraint by police.

In the Good Ol' Days, this kind of scrutiny didn’t exist and most Americans were unfamiliar with police uses of force. Movies usually showed cops as benign or virtuous. Sheriffs, Texas Rangers and other frontier “peace keepers” shot troublemakers. Exceptions to this propaganda were photos in the news media of police working as strike breakers, segregation enforcers, or attacking civil rights marchers and demonstrators in the South.

When I was a police reporter, I knew that my father’s father was our hometown’s first motorcycle cop. Grandpa Jack, whom I never knew, also was handy with his “slap jack,” according to the 1960s chief who knew him in the '30s. That wasn’t part of the family legend. A slap jack is a handheld, flat leather device sometimes loaded with lead shot. Swung hard enough, it wraps around an offender’s limb or head with stunning force. No one had photos of that.

The chief also recalled that Grandpa patrolled the logger bars with his English Mastiff. . . but without a leash or collar. No photos of that, either. Grandpa Jack died in bed. I never saw the slap jack but I inherited his Smith & Wesson .38 police revolver with live brass cartridges so old and green that they must have been in the cylinder when he last carried it.

Even when force isn’t involved, police don’t like being photographed. All over the nation, they harass journalists and others taking their photos. Sometimes, photos don’t even involve police. Think malls, mass transit, airports, energy facilities.

"There is a widespread, continuing pattern of officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply," Chris Calabrese, of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Observer.

Antiterrorism paranoia or “C.Y.A.” sometimes is invoked. I’ve written about this before, in the context of Britain’s nanny state and Ohio student photographers being harassed and/or arrested in campus-area confrontations.

What’s fascinating is the general absence of complaints against Cincinnati police from people with cameras. Officers might be uncommunicative, but they haven’t been confiscating cameras or arresting people who use them. That’s why the interference with voters using digital cameras at a Steve Chabot public meeting was so unusual. The cop said he was following orders from Chabot’s people.

When we talk about images of police officers, we’re not talking about revealing undercover identities. Masked officers remain masked in photos. Last week, however, the NYPD busted a guy who photographed an unmarked car being used for surveillance at Occupy Wall Street and the car’s license plate. Legal but provocative. Other officers being photographed are not any more identifiable than they are on daily patrol.

The catch is that videos often catch what the NFL calls “the second punch.” That’s an opposing player’s response that refs see after the original, unseen provocation. Police use of force sometimes follows actions beyond dashboard cameras or out of the view of microcams that some cops are wearing. As in the NFL, we often don’t know what provoked police, but bystanders’ camera phones capture the forceful response.

Sometimes, officers’ excessive force is evident. That was the case when an NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed unthreatening female demonstrators penned by police during an Occupy Wall Street demo. Video of the scene — moments before Bologna sprayed the women — shows cell phones being used as cameras by the nonviolent demonstrators. He didn’t care. He’s facing an internal investigation for that use of force.

In the same way, a tiny 84-year-old protester was pepper sprayed so heavily by Seattle police last week that it dripped from her face and she became a pinup illustrating police force.

And there are online camera phone images of a campus cop using an industrial size canister to blast pepper spray in the faces of seated, peaceful students in a demo at the University of California, Davis. They don’t even resist the cop’s assault and he obviously doesn’t give a shit who sees what he’s doing.

Two or three officers have been suspended and the chancellor — whose initial anti-student comments bordered on vicious — might be fighting for her job, too. Student contempt for her was awe-inspiring when she walked to her car through lines of angry but silent students, all caught on video.

It goes on and on.

Maybe we’re going back to the Vietnam era when many Americans saw young people as the enemy. Think May 1971 and Kent State University. That left us with the image of the young woman screaming as she knelt by one of the shooting victims. The difference is that police now are acting in full knowledge that they are being photographed by the news media or others who will post the images online. These cops don’t care.

Going well beyond pepper spray, NYPD sensitivity to photographers exploded last week when cops evicted Occupy Wall Street campers from Zuccotti Park. Various news sources say cops arrested and/or roughed reporters and photographers as part of NYPD’s effort to limit journalists’ access when protesters were forcibly evicted. It was unclear whether arrested or beaten journalists were part of the protest, embedded in the protest, or otherwise indistinguishable from protesters.

Some, however, said they showed NYPD press cards to no avail; they worked for the AP or the New York dailies. Many more apparently worked — and I’m not sure what that means — for online sites and blogs. I’ll wait for another time to dig into the “who is a journalist” debate, but the online world has made an already blurred identification fuzzier; not everyone with a camera phone is a journalist.

A lot of what I read about police/photographer confrontations comes from websites created by editors at the Poynter Institute in Florida. Poynter is a nonpartisan in-service training site for working journalists. It also publishes a daily aggregation of news-related items from other websites and publications. Two of our trades top ethicists also blog there.

Poynter Online quoted the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal and WITI-TV when it reported that photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff was wearing media credentials and “was clearly not part of the protest” when city police arrested her Wednesday near the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Police said Wentz-Graff “never identified herself as a journalist to officers.” It’s the second time in the past two months that Milwaukee police have arrested a working photojournalist. A WITI-TV videographer was arrested in September while covering a house fire.

At least in Los Angeles, three photographers are striking back, according to Poynter’s Bob Andelman.

Quoting The Los Angeles Times, he said news and other professional photographers claim they are being singled out for harassment by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Their federal lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Southern California.

The Times said the suit alleges the Sheriff’s Department and deputies “have repeatedly” subjected photographers “to detention, search and interrogation simply because they took pictures” from public streets of places such as Metro turnstiles, oil refineries or near a Long Beach courthouse.

Plaintiffs are photographers Shawn Nee, Gregory Moore and Shane Quentin and the National Photographers’ Rights Organization. Nee is described in the filing as an “aspiring” photojournalist, Moore shoots for The Long Beach Post, and Quentin is a freelancer.

The Times said Nee was detained in October 2009 and searched while shooting pictures of the subway; the deputy also “threatened to forward Nee’s name to counterterrorism so it could be added to an FBI ‘hit list’.” The incident was captured on video but the deputy was not disciplined for his rough handling of the photographer.

“Photographers in Los Angeles and nationwide are increasingly subject to harassment by police officers,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression.” Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said that the sheriff’s actions toward photographers “violates the Constitution’s core protections” and that “to single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.”

My personal experience with police violence came during a political demonstration when I worked for a Rome daily. I was there with my camera and when an aggressive officer approached me with obvious intent to do harm, I held up my ID with “stampa” (press) written on it. “Bene,” he said, and swung his club.

Curmudgeon notes:

• Jim Hopkins’ Gannet blog is the first outlet I’ve seen putting a price on The Enquirer's plan to close its Cincinnati press in Queensgate.

I quote: “Corporate estimates it could incur a one-time cost of less than $60 million for severance, depreciation and pension expenses if it shuts down The Cincinnati Enquirer's printing plant next year, and moves production to The Columbus Dispatch, according to the just-filed quarterly report to federal regulators. The company first raised that possibility in August, when it said it had signed a non-binding letter of intent for such a move . . . The shift could take place in the fourth quarter of next year. Publisher Margaret Buchanan, who outlined the plan in a memo to employees, didn't say how many jobs were at stake, and she didn't disclose possible cost savings. But in its 10-Q report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission . . . Corporate included a cost estimate for the first time. The report doesn't disclose long-term savings under the plan.”

Then Hopkins, a former editor at USA Today, quoted the SEC document: “The final decision to implement this change to the company’s Cincinnati operations is dependent upon reaching a definitive agreement with The Columbus Dispatch. If this agreement is reached, the company will incur charges for the partial withdrawal from multi-employer pension plans which will be negotiated with the representatives of those pension plans. The company will also incur severance related costs for the reduction of its workforce in Cincinnati and it will begin recognizing accelerated depreciation charges on its printing facilities there. If a definitive agreement is reached, it is expected that a complete transition of operations could take approximately 12 months to complete."

What makes the elimination of local jobs ironic is Buchanan’s role in the downtown power structure which says it’s trying to bring and keep well-paid jobs here . . . apparently unless their company’s bottom line is involved. She already has fired scores of Enquirer journalists and other staff. I don’t know how many printing plant jobs will be lost.

Another question is, “Who pays?” Does that $60 million come out of The Enquirer account, Gannett corporate, both? Or asked another way, will this cost further erode the depleted paper’s ability to retain and hire journalists?

• Why did it take Hamilton County Municipal Judge David Stockdale to ask where the Park Board got its authority to criminalize being in Piatt Park downtown after hours? Or put another way, why did local news media assume the police were right in enforcing a “law” that eroded the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, peaceably assemble and the right to petition government over grievances?

Was this willful ignorance, sloth or the common local assumption that these demonstrators were wrong and they deserved what they got? Stockdale said he couldn’t find anything that would justify police arresting or citing Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Cincinnati campers there after 10 p.m. The Enquirer quoted Stockdale telling colleagues, “There is no codified ordinance that makes the violation of a Park Board regulation a misdemeanor.” If Stockdale is correct, Cincinnati will lose another First Amendment confrontation at taxpayer expense. On the other hand, that’s no surprise. Cincinnati has been a cottage industry for civil rights lawyers suing our city government.

• I don’t make this stuff up. Here’s The Huffington Post: “Fox News viewers are less informed than people who don't watch any news, according to a new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University. The poll surveyed New Jersey residents about the uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East, and where they get their news sources. The study, which controlled for demographic factors like education and partisanship, found that ‘people who watch Fox News are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government’ and ‘6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government’ compared to those who watch no news. Overall, 53 percent of all respondents knew that Egyptians successfully overthrew Hosni Mubarak and 48 percent knew that Syrians have yet to overthrow their government.

“Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, explained in a statement, ‘Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News. Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.’

“This isn't the first study that has found that Fox News viewers more misinformed in comparison to others. Last year, a study from the University of Maryland found that Fox News viewers were more likely to believe false information about politics.”

• Joe Paterno was fired and the American news media rent their jerseys, poured ashes on their heads, and embraced apocalyptic language. Coverage was nonstop as jock-sniffers worried about the impact on “the program” and last home game. It took days before news media concern shifted to boys who reportedly were sodomized. Now that we’ve been told Paterno has lung cancer, the mourning can resume.

• Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for a parliamentary investigation of leading physicians who may have aided and abetted British medical fraudster Andrew Wakefield in his linking child vaccinations to autism. Lots of American children are among those whose parents won’t let them be vaccinated and even hold “chickenpox parties” in the belief that surviving “natural” infection is better than whatever is in vaccine. Penn State will survive. Some unvaccinated children will not. Try to find the vaccination investigation story in American news media. Then try to escape the tale of JoePa.

• Crimes alleged at Penn State weren’t revealed by reporters who cover football or anything else there. The latest story began with a grand jury probe and report. It can be a beat reporter’s career-killer to be denied locker room access by a coach or athletic or sports information director. Write something negative, interview a player supposedly off-bounds and there’s nothing but trouble. And it’s not just wealthy alumni who are the problem. Reporters and photographers are attacked and TV vans are tipped over by students. And then there are the dim bulbs who didn’t go to college or donate a million dollars who want any reporter covering The Team to be “on The Team.” It’s not a new problem and it’s not limited to college sports. Burn your access and you burn your job. Think “White House Press Corps.”

• As so many thoughtful commentators noted, what is going down at Penn State is not a scandal . . . but for the wrong reasons. They object to “scandal” when allegations of child sexual abuse is the issue. As one said, a scandal involves the president getting a blow job from an intern. Child sexual abuse is of a vastly different magnitude. I object to “scandal” because that suggests someone, somewhere will make things right at major college athletics. I have no such hope and trust that the news media will continue its willful blindness to anything that might bar the locker room door.

I’ll relent when journalists offering accurate figures on sports income and expenses and how this plays against total campus budgets. That’s going to have to include construction money, too; stadiums and sports centers don’t come cheap, no matter what alumni give. After all, once construction ends, someone has to keep those places open and the most convenient cash cows are students and their families.

• Sports reporters aren’t likely to break stories that bust famous coaches or teams. Others might. I’m indebted to Jon Friedman at MarketWatch.com for this accolade to Sara Ganim, a police/court reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News (circulation less than 100,000). Friedman said “Ganim wrote on March 31, 2011 — long before the mainstream media began following the story at all — that Sandusky was the subject of a grand-jury investigation for allegedly indecently assaulting a teenage boy. Ganim became better known after her Nov. 7 piece in which she interviewed two of the mothers of Sandusky’s alleged victims.”

Ganim, 24, is a Penn State grad. She told MarketWatch: “I was always the kid who asked the inappropriate question and would get yelled at. But you have to be a little nosy and inquisitive . . . I love digging up stories and telling stories . . . I do feel very strongly about local journalism. We’re losing it and that’s very sad.”

MarketWatch’s Friedman continued: “Ganim has had an advantage of covering the story for a paper out of the national limelight. Without the pressure of toiling in New York or Washington, she has the luxury of developing news sources. If she had found herself as a reporter in her early 20s on a big-city daily, she might have been consigned to report on smaller stories. Sometimes it’s a blessing to be a big fish in a small pond — especially when opportunity knocks.”

Then he quoted her, saying, “You can credit The Patriot-News with giving me the time a reporter needs to cover this kind of story. You don’t have that kind of flexibility anymore . . . This has been evolving so fast! Everyday, something breaks that is more unbelievable than the day before . . . I’ve been impressed by the strength of the moms I’ve talked to. Having to go through this is is bad enough, but to experience it on a national scale, it’s just awful (but) reporters follow facts. It may sadden people to see some stories. I just can’t let that get in the way of the facts.”

• All of us reporting in Flyover Land between the Right Coast and the Left Coast know that we cover national stories that national dailies and networks don’t. Why? We’re not in New York, Washington or L.A. If it’s not news there, it’s not news for them. It’s an arrogance that leaves ESPN, The New York Times, TV networks and others flat-footed when a big story breaks. And it won’t get better as the big dogs cut back on bureaus, staff and coverage beyond their immediate circulation areas.

• If politicians exaggerate the meaning of election victories and overstep their “mandate,” journalists are just as likely to exaggerate the meaning of the latest election when voters turn on those politicians. Piss off enough voters and they’ll turn on anyone, regardless of party. Forget Greek tragedy and hubris. “Throw the rascals out” is our national tradition.

• Cincinnatian Henry Heimlich suckered The New York Times into running an illustrated letter to the editor pushing his Heimlich Maneuver for choking and near-drowning. Maybe The Times never reported that the American Red Cross and others have abandoned the Maneuver as first response for anything. Maybe the letters to the editor folks don’t check The Times' online files that go back to Day One of the paper. Maybe The Times, being The Times, is impressed by names of people it considered famous.

I’ve written how groups from the Red Cross to Coast Guard experts reject the Maneuver as a first response but I’ve also never been able to learn why the Red Cross ever switched from back slaps to the Maneuver and back again to back slaps as the recommended first response to choking. If there ever was credible evidence for either decision, I haven’t seen it and the Red Cross never has responded to my questions.

• Left to their own devices, Enquirer photographers bring in fine news images. Some deserve the display editors give them on the news pages. Other images clearly are posed mug shots played huge, taking up columns that once were filled with news or news photos. It’s part of The Enquirer's effort to appear full of news when there is less and less as large photos, huge war-worthy headlines and promos fill space that fired reporters once required. Put another way, there is less and less news of things we need to know and more and more fluff.

Nowhere is this more evident in the Good News Edition published as local news every Sunday. If this really is what an increasing — yes, increasing — number of home subscribers really want, then generations of reporters, photographers and editors have failed utterly to demonstrate core values of a local newspaper. It’s not calendars and happy stories but the guts of vital debates over public policy. Krista Ramsey’s story about “food deserts” and a father who cycles miles each time he shops for fresh fruit and vegetables puts a face on a problem that deserves debate but how big do the photos have to be? How much space do they have to fill?

This goes beyond their news value. It compensates for stories that once were produced by journalists who were sacked as part of Gannett’s need to generate income for The Enquirer and pay and benefits for rising and departing corporate executives. Publisher Margaret Buchanan’s latest letter to readers puts lipstick on this pig. Here are some of what she wrote in that same Sunday paper under the headline: “The Enquirer is evolving with our readers." I quote her in part:

“What's important to our readers today isn't necessarily what was important to our readers yesterday or last year. So we're evolving . . . As we're deciding what improvements to make, we look at what will benefit readers the most. So, we started with the Sunday newspaper. You've probably noticed a difference over the past year as we've included more photography, graphics and images to help tell the stories. This past summer we overhauled our Business and Local sections, two of our most well-read sections, to include more people and more stories.

“We're pleased that a recent report shows our Sunday Enquirer circulation is up . . . The other half of this story is the daily (Monday - Saturday) editions of The Enquirer. Sales of the Monday through Saturday editions of The Enquirer have declined in the same 26-week period. We expected this. We started by focusing on improving the Sunday Enquirer — this is the edition more people read, so we are able to affect more people with these positive changes. But we've also been working to improve the daily papers . . . But our transformation is about more than improving The Enquirer. It's about recognizing that readers want their news and information in new forms — online, on their mobile devices, delivered to their email in-box. So we're taking the stories our reporters find and bringing them to you in any form you want, so you have access to the information you need when and where you need it.”

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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