Ten months ago Police Commissioner Ray Kelly instructed his department to follow the law and respect the rights of journalists. One month ago, the third installment in a series of sternly worded letters was sent to the NYPD pleading for the department to stop obstructing members of the media from doing their jobs. Yet this weekend, five journalists were arrested covering Occupy Wall Street protesters, while others reported an atmosphere of harassment and intimidation from police officers, including a photographer on assignment for the Associated Press who was shoved and blocked from taking a photo by a Lieutenant in the NYPD's Legal Bureau.
It's worth noting that at least one senior NYPD official complied with Commissioner Kelly's memo: Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne. "One of our members just emailed me and asked me to thank [Browne] for intervening on his behalf," said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel to the National Press Photographers Association. "Apparently they were trying to take photos when a few police officers started shoving them back, and Paul Browne ran over and put a stop to it. I just sent him an email thanking him."
None of the five journalists who were arrested had NYPD-issued credentials, although C.S. Muncy, a credentialed photographer shooting for the Village Voice, was forced to the ground and briefly detained. "Certainly the City has an interest in limiting the number of reporters they can pack into a press conference," Osterreicher says, "But [credentials] shouldn't matter if you're on a public sidewalk. As the case law shows, news is just as likely to come from a person with a cell phone as a journalist with a credential. They should be respecting everybody."
NPPA-credentialed photographer Julia Reinhart, who was arrested on Monday morning while attempting to take a picture of an officer giving a dispersal order on a sidewalk, says, "I've been heckled by the NYPD for not having an NYPD credential. They always say, 'You're not a real photographer.' But of course I am. I'm trying to make a living."
Charles Meacham, a photographer who experienced his second arrest for covering Occupy Wall Street events on Monday morning, says he has a "strange" rapport with his arresting officer, Deputy Inspector Edward Winski (who is a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit related to police misconduct). "He knows who I am. He's asked how I'm doing before," Meacham says. "He knows I'm a photographer. He'll say, 'Hey, where's your press pass? Oh that's right, you don't have one.' "
Deputy Inspector Winski made similar comments to independent web and radio journalist John Knefel, hours before he was arrested on Monday afternoon. "He said 'You are not a journalist.' But my feeling is maybe he just didn't see the credentials hanging around my neck," Knefel says. "I could not care less about what Paul Browne thinks of my work. I'm reluctantly considering applying for credentials, if only just because they saved C.S. from arrest—but they didn't prevent him from getting shoved to the ground."
Reinhart, a photographer for 30 years, says she's never had any issue with the NYPD shooting anything else in the city besides Occupy-related events. Meacham concurs. "I've shot in Russia, Belarus—all over, and they just leave foreign journalists alone. Before I started covering Occupy stuff, I didn't know the NYPD didn't like to be photographed," Meacham says.
Osterreicher disagrees, praising the effectiveness of the police departments in Chicago, Charlotte, and Tampa, for allowing press and photographers to work without interference: "I'm sorry, I believe it's the culture of the NYPD. It has nothing to do with what the event is."
An email to Paul Browne was not returned. Stephanie Keith, the NYPD and NPPA-credentialed photographer who was shoved by Lieutenant Daniel Albano of the NYPD Legal Bureau also declined to comment, although the altercation was confirmed by Reinhart, who took the photo.
Asked about the apparent failure of previous efforts to reach out to the NYPD concerning press relations, Osterreicher quoted an email he had sent to Browne expressing concern about this weekend's arrests. But how many letters or emails are enough? "I will just keep trying, and keep reaching out and having a dialogue," he replied, adding, "As I often say in the police vernacular, 'We can do this the easy way or the hard way.' "