Friday, September 30, 2011

Milwaukee photojournalist obeying police, arrested anyway

Nikon D200 DSLRFox 6, Milwaukee, reported that veteran photojournalist Clint Fillinger, was at a fire scene videotaping when a police officer ordered him to move back from where other members of the public were located, while everyone else was permitted to remain.

Fox 6 reported that Mr. Fillinger “was shooting video behind the yellow police tape alongside a small crowd that gathered to watch” when the police officer came to him and ordered him to move back.

The station reported that Mr. Fillinger put his hand up defensively as the policeman was forcing him backwards, and accidentally touched the officer. Then, as the report states, Mr. Fillinger was knocked to the ground and arrested. He was cited for resisting and obstructing a police officer. Mr. Fillinger suffered bruises from the incident.


Fox 6 complained to the police department, and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) sent a formal letter of complaint to the police department protesting the arrest. Among other things, NPPA general counsel, Mickey Osterreicher pointed out that in making the arrest the police officer violated the department's own policies.

Mr. Osterreicher wrote,

“While in some situations the press may have no greater rights than those of the general public, they certainly have no less right of access on a public street. Sgt. Thomas Heinz pretextually stated he has moving Mr. Fillinger 'for his own safety' yet did not see fit to move any other persons back or to move the previously established police/fire lines….”
Indeed, while members of the press don't necessarily have greater rights than the general public, they certainly don't have fewer rights.
In response to Mr. Osterreicher's letter of complaint, and Fox 6's complaint to the department, on September 21, 2011, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn spoke to the media and blamed the 68 year-old news photographer’s failure to comply with the officer’s request as the cause of the incident.

Chief Flynn, is apparently ignoring that the officer's actions moving Mr. Fillinger back violated his First Amendment rights, both as a private citizen and member of the press, that Mr. Fillinger touched Sgt. Heinz by accident, and that Sgt. Heinz's actions violated Milwaukee Police Department policy.

Chief Flynn's response was just another in a series of governmental responses which are a general attack on photographers' Constitutional rights nationwide in the US. The actions in Wisconsin, like those in Florida, and Maryland, which I have written about, affect all photographers, both amateur and professional alike, at home and while traveling.

On September 22, 2011, Mr. Osterreicher wrote to Chief Flynn a second letter which in part stated,
“Although I have yet to receive a response to my letter dated 9/20/11 I have had an opportunity to listen to the comments you made to the Milwaukee media yesterday. I find it quite disturbing to hear you say that 'if the cameraman had simply complied with the instructions, had simply complied with the instructions to back off from a working fire none of this hullabaloo would be taking place.' As is clearly evident from Mr. Fillinger’s video he was complying with the sergeant’s unlawful order when he was forcefully pushed to the ground and arrested. In case you did not have an opportunity to read the decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that I sent, it is well established that the 'fundamental and virtually self-evident nature of the First Amendment’s protections' guarantees the 'right to film government officials or matters of public interest in public space.'”
It's important for the American photography community to take appropriate action to rid the nation of this irrational fear of public photography and videography.

2 comments:

Howard Carson, Managing Editor said...

While police departments gather carefully around one of their own in order to protect him from the anger justifiably expressed by the photographer, his peers and by common citizens, nobody seems to be getting at the root of the problem - a cop who made a bad decision. Go after the individual instead - the organization will weed him out after a while.

The vast majority of all police officers don't push photographers to the ground or interfere with photographers in any way. Individual police officers who do interfere with photographers need to be weeded out. But believing that any police department would 'out' one of their own because of this incident is naive at worst, unrealistic at best. However, private meetings between the local press association, the photographer's employer and the police chief will go a long way toward ensuring that the overzealous police officer is disciplined, and more important, educated about common news photography. By contrast, these public debates, recriminations and complaints rarely do anything but force police organizations to close ranks.

Ned S. Levi said...

Actually Howard, your idea to go after the individual police officers is what many of us who have had problems have already done, by going directly to the departments for which they work.

I think in large part it's important to go to the department for two reasons. First, based on my experience and knowledge, it's rarely the individual bad cop who interferes with photographers. It's generally an organizationally based problem. Second, I believe it's been more effective to take the case right to the departments which employ the officers as they feel less threatened by the photographer "staying in-house," and are more open to immediate change that way.

That's what the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), to which I belong, has been doing on behalf of its membership.

When I was threatened with arrest by Amtrak Police, for example, I went to Amtrak, as did others with similar problems with Amtrak police, and the NPPA jumped in too. Soon after a number of incidents with Amtrak Police were brought to their management and NPPA got involved, they formulated a clear policy about photography, that while it had some limitations which were safety oriented, it was generally permitted, and they clearly informed their officers what they expected. Since then, my experience with Amtrak has been excellent.

Unfortunately for travelers, and amateur enthusiasts, they have no association or organization which will stand behind them when they run into difficulties with the police over their photography, unless a group such as the ACLU will help them. Without clear proof of the circumstances of an incident, it's extremely hard to fight back and go after the individual or department.

I disagree with your premise that public debates "rarely do anything but force police organizations to close ranks." The press and a number of blogs exposed problems photographers were having in New York. Eventually, in large part due to the public debate, in my opinion, the NYPD got the word out to their officers that photography wasn't against the law. While there are some restrictions in NYC, with regard to photography, in general, photographers on the streets of NYC don't have problems with police any more. I shoot in NYC often, and not only haven't I had a problem there in more than 3 years, I'd had a couple of instances where the police were helpful to me taking photos.

I believe getting the word out via the press, blogs, etc. is critical in restoring the public photography rights of people which have been eroding since "9/11." Governments have been operating with a sense of paranoia about public photography since that awful day. Informing the public about these problems is crucial to eliminating them.

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