Now might be a good time to bring up the sheriff’s deputy who snatched my cell phone, in mid-use, right out of my hand. That was his way of ending an interview I was doing with a man on a street that this deputy thought had gone on too long. Because we were transmitting that phone interview live, as a report during our noon newscast, the last thing viewers heard was my voice yelling “Hey, what are you doing!” Click.
Back in the studio, the anchors explained to viewers that somehow the cell connection was lost. Back out on Pembroke Road, I was dogging the deputy up the street to get his name for some future action. The incident is all on videotape, as happens when news photographers are present.
That deputy’s action was not law enforcement. It was bully behavior.
And in the bigger picture, this guy with a badge, a gun and the power of the law had just trashed the First Amendment.
Later that day, a spokesman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office graciously apologized for the deputy’s behavior (though the offender never did). I tried to be equally gracious, and chalked up his behavior to an emotional reaction in the hours after a colleague had been shot.
End of story.
Except it’s not the end.
That incident was part of a continuum of law enforcement officers acting on some preconceived notion that news reporters are public enemy number one. And I bring it up now because of what happened Tuesday afternoon.
A school police officer arrested my colleague Jeff Weinsier, because Jeff did not move from a sidewalk in front of a high school. This would have been a perfectly acceptable command, had the sidewalk been part of a police action, had the officer also ordered away the dozens of people on the sidewalk with him. But he didn’t. More officers showed up, and when Jeff stood his ground, they cuffed him, then charged him with trespassing (on a sidewalk?), with resisting arrest (by asserting his right to be on a public street?).
Jeff was carrying a revolver, for which he has a permit, and showed that permit to the officers. Not that those officers even knew he had the gun when they arrested him. And not that it legally matters.
Been there, done that (minus the arrest). Different school, different police officer, same command to get off a public sidewalk, move here, stay there.
Crash course in freedom of the press: as the “voice of the public”, news crews are permitted to be anywhere the public is permitted.
When was the last time someone told you to leave a sidewalk in front of a school?
Allowing for two sides (and typically more) to every story, I make no judgments about Jeff’s arrest. The facts will come out in due time. The chances of that happening are good, because this incident, too, was videotaped – by news photographer Frank Debesa. Unblinking, unedited videotape provides an unvarnished, indisputable picture like no verbal account ever can. Without emotion or agenda.
Still photographs, as snapshots of moments, may also help. A freelance journalist named Carlos Miller is currently using his photos in his own legal fight. Earlier this year, in the course of shooting pictures for a story along Biscayne Boulevard, he managed to shoot a few frames while police officers arrested him. They had told him to go away. He didn’t. His photos show his arrest on a public sidewalk.
Why do they do it? Because they can? To show they’re in charge?
Badge on the chest, gun belt around the waist and chip on the shoulder?
Every reporter I know – EVERY one – has a deep respect for the law and the people who enforce it. Many count among them good friends and collegial professional relationships. No reporter I know would do anything to compromise an investigation or the safety of an officer or the public. News organizations that employ me have gone out of the way to assist officers and departments when asked.
So why this inherent contentious, combative demeanor? Aren’t we all on the same side?? Serving the people?