After eight years, dozens of phone calls, two appeal hearings, countless emails, and $5,000, two Gothamist staffers have now obtained NYPD-issued press credentials. We were also finally granted access to press releases regularly sent out by the department concerning noteworthy arrests, requests for help finding suspects, gun buybacks, and things of that nature. But fundamental questions concerning the credentialing process itself remain unanswered.

For instance, our press credentials are set to expire on January 15th, 2013, less than a year after they were issued. This expiration date ignores the result of a lawsuit filed in 2008 and settled in 2009, which stipulated that press credentials would be valid for two years before renewal. Instead, all press credentials issued after the new ruling went into effect with the same expiration date: January 15th, 2013. (If your pass states otherwise, please let us know.)

And our questions concerning the specific criteria to qualify to receive the NYPD's press wire updates—which are sent out "in cases of homicide, high profile arrests or major occurrences"—were ignored. On one occasion, an officer at the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information [DCPI] office told us Ray Kelly himself had to personally approve every media outlet added to the email list for basic press releases. On another occasion, we were told that only media outlets with NYPD-issued press credentials could receive the emails. Finally, almost two months after our credentials were issued, Gothamist simply began receiving these notifications.

And during both of our appeal hearings, we found that what constituted a "police line" or an "event sponsored by the City of New York" was not codified, but in fact subject to open debate. Tours of Ground Zero were deemed to not be city-sponsored events based on seemingly pedantic or vague interpretations of the guidelines.

"Given who you guys are and the fact that we've been persevering on this issue, they may have chosen to just give these things to you rather than give the systemic reasoning behind their decisions," our attorney, Norman Siegel tells us. "We still have open issues. The question is whether there's other people out there facing the same problems. It shouldn't take the sort of challenge that you guys went through. What happened to Gothamist should never have happened."

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Gothamist's Publisher Jake Dobkin and his dinosaur socks, inside a DCPI "waiting room" (Katie Sokoler / Gothamist)

On January 11th, around a month after we both received our rejection letters, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin and I met Mr. Siegel at 1 Police Plaza for our appeal hearings. Upon arriving at the 13th floor offices of DCPI, Detective Gina Sarubbi, the officer in charge of reviewing press credential applications, instructed Jake and our photographer, Katie Sokoler, to have a seat in a "waiting room" filled with boxes and broken office equipment. While they waited, Siegel and I went in for the hearing. "I was angry about having to spend so many hours preparing the exhibits and so much money on legal fees for a hearing I expected to lose," Jake recalls. "I expressed this resentment by wearing blue socks with dinosaurs on them."

We were led into a conference room with large glass windows and an impressive view of the Hudson River and Lower Manhattan. "My clients request that their photographer be allowed to take a few photos of this hearing," Mr. Siegel said. "Is that permissible?" Deputy Inspector Kim Royster, who heads up DCPI, said that it was not. In addition to Deputy Inspector Royster and Detective Sarubbi, we were joined by NYPD Legal Bureau attorney Krista Ashbery. After polite introductions, we went through each of the roughly ten clips I submitted, one by one, to discuss why they did or did not qualify.

"This bomb shelter article, the one in Washington Square Park," Ms. Ashbery said, "This doesn't qualify because police lines are absent." I pointed out that there were several NYPD officers stationed at the event who ended up breaking up a physical altercation between two people. "Whether or not there is an established police line depends on the type of detail that is assigned," DI Royster said. "So a line of police officers doesn't count as a police line?" I asked. "In this case," she responded, "there was no police line."

This was also the rationale for denying a clip about the growing mainstream media coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Mr. Siegel pointed out that police officers and barricades "formed a literal ring around Zuccotti Park," but still, according to Ms. Royster and Ms. Ashbery, no official police line existed. This was also the case for an article written on the morning of October 14, when NYPD officers surrounded Zuccotti Park and prepared to enforce an edict from Mayor Bloomberg to clear the park for cleaning.

When we reviewed a piece about a cyclist being struck and killed on Delancey Street that included a photo showing a crime scene tape, there was no debate. We submitted other similarly positioned clips for their consideration so there would be no doubt that I satisfied the requirements, and after more polite conversation and an assurance that they would thoroughly review my material, I left to summon Jake. Detective Sarubbi, who for months had been the only NYPD officer that I dealt with regarding my application, didn't say a word. Jake, on the other hand, scored a "Nice socks" compliment from Sarubbi during our visit!

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On the 13th floor of 1 Police Plaza (Katie Sokoler / Gothamist)

"Most of the arguments in my hearing came down to the precise definition of 'police line,' " Jake says. "For instance, the WTC clips—they were willing to admit that there were barriers set up around the site, and police assigned to the site, but they felt that unless the police were specifically assigned to the gate in which I entered, the clip shouldn't qualify." This was especially puzzling considering that the hallways of 1 Police Plaza are filled with tributes and remembrances to those who were lost on September 11.

The NYPD's representatives promised to review his points and solicited suggestions for the entire application process once ours was finished. "We agreed that the application should specify which City Agencies count and which ones don't, because agencies like the MTA or the LMDC don't."

"At least one NYPD employee was clearly hostile during those hearings, and I raised that issue informally to city attorneys," Siegel recalled. "Two others were extremely cooperative and receptive to what we had to say to them."

On our way out of DCPI, Katie began shooting photos of the main entrance and hallway into the DCPI office. Two police officers quickly stopped her. "We don't take pictures around here," one said.

A week later, I received an email from Ms. Ashbery informing me that my application was accepted. Jake received an email four weeks later informing him that he would be denied, but that if he submitted two more qualifying articles, they would consider them before rejecting him outright. His two World Trade Center clips were rejected because the NYPD determined that there was no "police detail" assigned on those days. Rather than file a lawsuit, Jake attended a City Hall photo-op and a press conference for a stoplight. He received his press credentials shortly afterward.

But what happens to bloggers or journalists who can't afford a respected, well-connected civil rights attorney to represent them? "We do know that perhaps retaining me had something to do with getting the credentials," Siegel concedes. (In addition to being a former head of the NYCLU, Siegel has been practicing civil rights litigation for over four decades.) "But if it takes four, five months to just get through the credentialing process and you have to hire an attorney to do so, it has a definite chilling effect."

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(Katie Sokoler / Gothamist)

Siegel adds, "It's an issue with the younger, muck-racking journalists. They're not going to have the resources to challenge the NYPD—and that was the issue we thought we tackled in 2009 with those new regulations. Clearly we have more work to do in this respect and we are doing it."

Jake agrees: "I believe the NYPD has an unspoken bias against online-only outlets, and specifically those that are youth-oriented, as they tend to be more critical of the police. My preference would be to see all press passes eliminated, or at least the credentialing process moved to a different city agency, like the Department of Consumer Affairs." Siegel says this goal would be "exceedingly difficult to prosecute in court."

Immediately after I received my credentials, I began asking for DCPI press wire updates. Over a month later, we got our first one. In addition to applying for four reserve cards for Gothamist staffers to use, we've also filed a FOIL request for the number of total applications for NYPD-issued press credentials, the acceptance/rejection rate, and the rate at which they go to appeal. Siegel says the city attorneys he spoke with told him the initial rejection rate is high, but that applicants who are willing to attend an appeal hearing have a good shot at prevailing.

A letter from Records Access Officer, Lieutenant Richard Mantellino tells us that those FOIL results will be in our hands before July 5, 2012.

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Left to right: Norman Siegel, Christopher Robbins, Jake Dobkin (Katie Sokoler/Gothamist)