Covering fires is a routine part of a television news photographer's job. Clint Fillinger has been doing it for more than 40 years in Milwaukee, so he knows the drill: Stay behind the yellow police tape and roll on everything. But this fall, while doing exactly that, Fillinger went from shooting the news to making it when he was knocked down, handcuffed and arrested at the scene of a house fire. When did videotaping become a crime?
Several recent incidents suggest a disturbing new trend: public safety officials targeting photographers, including professionals. "Cops don't want to be identified," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "They don't want their pictures taken."
The relationship between journalists and police officers has always been tense, of course. "They're both aggressive professions, and sometimes they get in one another's face," says John Timoney, former police chief in Miami and Philadelphia.
But something clearly has changed. "It used to be guys with a reputation for not following orders" who wound up in confrontations with police, Dalglish says. "These days, it's folks keeping their mouths shut and doing their jobs."
In the Milwaukee case, Fillinger was charged with obstructing a police officer after he objected to being forced back "for safety" while members of the public were allowed to stay put, watching the house fire from across the street. His boss concedes that he used an expletive and raised his arm when the officer closed in on him, but says the arrest was not justified.
"While the language was coarse, I truly believe Clint had no intention of touching the officer, and the whole thing certainly did not rise to the level of being dropped to the ground and handcuffed," says Jim Lemon, news director at Milwaukee's Fox affiliate, WITI. "It was a bad spur-of-the-moment decision made by the police commanders on the scene."
Two recent cases in Suffolk County, New York, reflect similar bad decisions. In late July, a photographer for a local TV news service was arrested while videotaping the end of a police chase. An officer ordered Phil Datz to leave the scene, even though he was standing on a public street with other people. When Datz asked where he was supposed to go, the officer responded, "I don't care where you go, just go away." After Datz set up in the next block and started shooting video again, the officer jumped in his squad car, raced up to Datz and arrested him for obstruction. The charges were dropped.
A few weeks after that incident, an emergency services official in the same jurisdiction manhandled a photojournalist for New York's NBC-owned station, WNBC, as he tried to videotape the cleanup of a chemical spill. The official grabbed the photographer's camera and tried to wrestle it away.
What's different now, some say, is the proliferation of cellphone cameras on the street combined with heightened concern about terrorism. "I think that post 9/11 police treat everyone with a camera as suspect," says Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. "In certain instances, news photographers are singled out because of their high visibility."
Photojournalists aren't the only ones who have been targeted. Cases are pending in several states against citizens who have been arrested and had their cameras confiscated after videotaping police action. And the arrests keep coming, even though the police keep losing in court. The latest ruling, from an appeals court in Massachusetts, said the First Amendment "unambiguously" protects the right of citizens to videotape police officers performing their duties in a public space. Journalists clearly deserve the same protection.
"The press may have no greater rights than those of the general public," Osterreicher says. "They certainly have no less right of access on a public street."
Police officers should know better than to run anyone in just for taking pictures. "We tell them constantly at the academy, 'Take it for granted, you're going to be on camera,'" Timoney says. "Everybody has a camera and they're entitled to use it. We police have to suck it up."
Journalism groups say officers need training to make sure they understand the rights of professionals and citizens alike to take pictures of police activity in public places. But Timoney doubts that more training is the answer. "If police don't understand this now, all the training in the world isn't going to help."
Piling up victories in court probably won't help either. When charges against photojournalists are dismissed, as they inevitably are, the police officers involved pay no penalty and face no sanctions. Suing for false arrest might make a difference, Dalglish says, by hitting the police department where it hurts – in the budget. But it's unlikely any cash-strapped news organization would be willing to shoulder the cost of a lawsuit just to make a point.
So what's to be done? Keep shooting, I say. Nothing makes a better case for the First Amendment than good video of a police officer behaving badly.