Philip Datz, a professional video journalist on Long Island, New York, was filming the aftermath of a police chase on July 29, 2011 when a Suffolk County police sergeant demanded he leave the scene.
Though no police lines had been established, Datz moved a block away.
The sergeant again approached him, and though Datz prominently displayed his press credentials and was standing in a location open to the public, he was handcuffed, taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration. Police also seized his video camera and tape recording of the incident.
Many reporters and photographers can relate to this. They know what it is like to be kept away from fire and accident scenes and threatened with arrest.
In the case of Datz, a lawsuit was filed on his behalf by the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, the National Press Photographers Association and the New York Civil Liberties Union. A settlement in that case has been reached. It requires that the Suffolk County Police Department pay Datz $200,000 and create a Police-Media Relations Committee to address problems between the press and the Police Department.
After public outcry over Datz's arrest, the SCPD also revised its rules and procedures to instruct officers that "members of the media cannot be restricted from entering and/or producing recorded media from areas that are open to the public, regardless of subject matter."
A training video was created for police officers. It advises officers that (a) members of the press and public have the right to observe, photograph and record all police activity from locations open to the public; (b) police personnel may not expand a crime scene perimeter for the sole purpose of interfering with the right of the media and the public to observe and record police activity from locations open to the public; (c) members of the media are not required to possess a press pass when in areas open to the public; and (d) all members of the SCPD must be familiar with the rules and procedures regarding bystanders and media at police incidents.
Locally, we've had instances where officials denied access to the media at fire scenes and sites of other emergencies and threatened with arrest if they didn't comply.
"In our society, people have a clear right to document police activity in public places," said Amol Sinha, director of the New York Civil Liberty Union's Suffolk County Chapter. "This right is especially important when it comes to documenting police interactions with the community. We hope this settlement strengthens the ability of journalists and everyone to hold the police accountable for their actions and keep members of the community informed."
We hope the message spreads to our local law enforcement and fire department officials. We understand the importance of protecting evidence at crime scenes and in other investigations, but responsible journalists shouldn't be kept from telling their stories.
Congratulations on the victory for journalism in this matter. It's a battle that was bound to happen.
By RON GOWER