Monday, March 5, 2012

Chicago's top cop on eavesdropping, police and the media

Illinois News Broadcasters Association Freedom of Information committee chair Bob Roberts in the INBA's newsletter "Tune In" filed this report, which includes comments on the ongoing dispute about recording police officers and the targeting of journalists covering Occupy demonstrations:

Although it remains illegal to record a conversation with a police officer in Illinois if you get pulled over or have a run-in, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy says the law should be changed. He says the unique law is just as bad for the police as it is for citizens.

An attempt by State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) to change the law to exempt recordings by the media or the public, in public places, when police are acting, won approval from a House Judiciary Committee 9-2 on Feb. 8. HB3944 awaits action on the House floor and your FOIA chair strongly urges you to voice support for the change.

McCarthy's support helps. He said at a Jan. 25 Chicago Headline Club forum that he found it helpful as a police official in New York and in Newark, N.J., to record officers politely, but firmly, informing protesters that if they did not end their protest they would be arrested. He said that prevented brutality suits against his officers then, and said he planned to use the same approach with the Occupy Chicago protesters.

"The first night, after we made 147 arrests, the goal was to assure that what was recorded was the fact that, 'Excuse me, sir, you are in violation of the law; You are about to be arrested; You have the opportunity to leave. If you choose to leave, you can leave now. If you choose to stay, you will be arrested.' Which was the warning that we gave every single one of the 147 people that were arrested that night," McCarthy told those attending the panel, at Loyola University, and related in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The next day, I said, 'Let me see the videotape.' All I saw was this." McCarthy pantomimed officers mouthing words to protesters. "This is a foreign concept to me," McCarthy said of the Illinois eavesdropping law. "This is problematic, because the idea was to show exactly what we were doing was giving people warnings . . . It was an enlightening moment for me. . . . Illinois is the only state in the union that has such a law."

Occupy my jail cell

You had to see this coming.

The targeting of journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street movement for arrest has caused the United States to plunge in a leading worldwide survey of press freedom. The index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders and released Jan. 25, showed the U.S. in 47th place, down from 20th in 2010.

And this spring's NATO and G8 meetings in Chicago haven't even occurred yet.

Of course, Occupy demonstrations were far from the only place that journalists were harassed, their photos and videos confiscated, and arrests were made. Authorities in a host of countries did so in 2011, but it still remains surprising to many that the U.S. would place so low in a worldwide survey. The Huffington Post story on the index noted that Tunisia moved up 30 spots because of the coverage of the Arab Spring protests, although Bahrain and Egypt dropped 29 and 39 spots, respectively, for the same reasons.

That same day, NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher told the National Press Club that a "perfect storm" of repression has raged against U.S. photojournalists in recent years. Osterreicher, who spent 40 years as a photojournalist, said police in many cases simply don't understand that the media ad the citizenry alike have a right to take pictures in public, so long as it does not do something harmful, such as impeding police making an arrest or blocking paramedics who are treating an accident victim. He said the Occupy Wall Street-related harassment and arrests involving reporters and photographers have only exacerbated the situation.

A coalition of media groups, including the AP, NPPA, NBC, Dow Jones, Bloomberg News, the New York Press Club and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), wrote the New York Police Department Feb. 1 for the second time in two months, saying it must take more steps to resolve reporter access issues. The letter says that officers continue to interfere with reporters on the job, even after Commissioner Raymond Kelly told his officers in November that they could be disciplined if they disrupted media access.

Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, ruled Feb. 16 that restrictions on access for photojournalists to a horse roundup by a federal agency may have violated the photojournalists' rights. NPPA reported that the court remanded the case to a lower court to reconsider the question based on a specific analysis. Photojournalist Laura Leigh sought a court order overriding the restrictions after being placed under a media escort and being forced to move to areas in which she could neither observe nor photograph the horses being moved or sorted, but was denied by a trial court judge.

In Memphis, WPTY-TV videographer Casey Monroe ended up in the back of a squad car, under arrest, with his photos deleted, on Jan. 29 after he attempted to use his cell phone to photograph police giving a ticket to a restaurant owner for parking illegally. Monroe said he was simply trying to document the situation, but said he was told by police that he could not shoot video of them even though he was on public property. WPTY reported that cameras were not allowed inside when Monroe filed a complaint to the Memphis Police Internal Affairs Unit, either.