Video of ‘Times’ photographer’s confrontation with police touches off another exchange between NYPD and local media

video-times-photographers-confrontation-police-touches-another-exchang
Robert Stolarik confronts an NYPD officer during a protest last year. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

An attorney for The New York Times sent an email yesterday afternoon to Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne expressing "disappointment" after officers interfered with one of the paper's photographers while he was covering an Occupy Wall Street protest at the World Financial Center, where arrests were in progress.

The email, which was described to Capital by another attorney who was copied on it, was sent following an earlier complaint to Browne lodged by the Times on behalf of 13 news organizations about alleged police "abuses" of the press during Occupy Wall Street actions in November.

That initial letter resulted in a message from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to his entire force instructing them not to interfere with members of the media and that they "may restrict access to an incident scene only in those exceptional circumstances where it is absolutely necessary for law enforcement or public order purposes."

Despite this warning, such interference has persisted, resulting in an ongoing stand-off between the NYPD and the press.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Yesterday's incident with the Times photographer, Robert Stolarik, was the latest example. In a video posted to YouTube, officers were seen to be confronting Stolarik and intentionally blocking his shots, and at points physically restraining him from coming closer to the scene of an arrest, despite his clearly visible NYPD press credentials. 

The Times attorney, George Freeman, reached out to Browne as the footage went viral on the web.

"We are disappointed that the result and first step of our recent meeting with Com. Kelly, the directive he issued reiterating that the police are not supposed to be interfering with the media’s doing their jobs and covering newsworthy events, has apparently not been followed or implemented on the ground," Freeman told us today in emailed comments that he said reflected the gist of the letter. "The World Financial Center video indisputably shows an officer bobbing and weaving for no other purpose than to block a Times freelancer’s ability to photograph police actions."

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, who was copied on Freeman's letter, sent a separate email to Browne describing an unrelated recent incident in which an officer allegedly screamed at photojournalists and TV crews who had arrived at the corner of 23rd Street and Second Avenue to report on a construction accident in which one worker was seen perilously dangling from some scaffolding.

According to Osterreicher, a police sergeant who was present at the scene tried to force the line of photographers out of view of the crane, saying, "What would you do if that was your father up there? Would you be taking pictures?"

"I think this is the part of the culture of the NYPD that we have to overcome," said Osterreicher. "It's not up to the police to decide what's newsworthy or to protect the privacy rights of people out in public, because when you're out in public, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy."

But Osterreicher did applaud Browne for writing back "almost immediately" saying that he would look into both incidents. At the time, Browne was about to enter a meeting with Kelly and other department brass about their search for a second suspect in yesterday's slaying in Brooklyn of a 47-year-old NYPD officer and father of four, Osterreicher said.

"I really want to commend them for that, given what's going on," he said.

Still, Osterreicher said there has been an uptick in complaints from photojournalists in the past year claiming police have unreasonably interfered with their work. While the group of organizations that has been lobbying the NYPD to adjust its approach to press has generally categorized photojournalists and reporters together, yesterday's incident with the Times photographer was evidence that particularly in situations like police actions during protests, photographers are viewed with special suspicion and even contempt by police.

"They've got cameras. That immediately makes them more visible than just a reporter with or without a notebook," said Osterreicher.

"And now you've got this whole Occupy Wall Street movement," he continued, "where [police] are concerned that should they use excessive force or not follow procedures in affectuating arrests, that it's going to be documented."

There's no reason that text documentation of an arrest or a confrontation between police and protesters aren't equal to photography, except for the impact on public perception. When, earlier in the cycle of protests, newspapers showed an officer with his face screwed into an expression of effort (or anger?) pepper-spraying a protester in the face, it was worth a thousand words, even if not a single one of them was "brutality."

NYPD officials agreed last summer to conduct training on police-press relations. Browne has not responded to inquiries from Capital about what precisely that training entails. But Osterreicher told us he's performed such training with police departments in other cities and would like to participate in New York's as well.

"The training is more important than anything else," he said.