3:43 pm Dec. 21, 20114
The New York Police Department has "stepped up" its media training in the past month since news outlets complained of "abuses" by officers assigned to the scenes of protests, according to a department press officer.
In an interview with Capital on Tuesday, Deputy Inspector Kim Royster said that the department had taken a number of steps in response to a blistering letter on Nov. 21 from 13 news organizations that took police to task for arresting and acting physically aggressive toward journalists during Occupy Wall Street protests the previous week. The letter demanded an "immediate meeting" with Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne, who runs the NYPD's office of public information.
Referring to an earlier meeting with Browne, the letter, drafted by an attorney for The New York Times, read in part: "You also agreed that additional training to reinforce media guidelines, for newer officers on the force, would be beneficial."
Royster emphasized that such training has been "continuous" for the past several years.
"It did not start as a result of that letter to the deputy police commissioner," she said.
But in the month since the letter was sent, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has reissued the NYPD's "non-interference" order, which was read to officers across all departments in the force. It reads: "Members of the service who unreasonably interfere with media access to incidents or who intentionally prevent or obstruct the photographing or videotaping of news in public places will be subject to disciplinary action."
Royster has also personally met with groups of commanding officers to provide training on media guidelines, she said, and copies of a "media representatives summary" have been distributed to police at the sites of demonstrations.
The summary reminds officers that, "Information, assistance, or access should be rendered to whatever extent possible, when it does not: Pose undue risk to personal safety; Interfere with police operations; Adversely effects the rights of an accused or the investigation or prosecution of a crime.
"Members of the service will not interfere with the videotaping or photographing of incidents in public places," it continues. "Intentional interference constitutes censorship. Media access to demonstrations on private property will not be impeded by the Department unless an owner or representative indicates press is not permitted. The media will be given access as close to the activity as possible with a clear line of site and within hearing range of the incident."
Whether or not this training and guideline-reinforcement will help bring about a detente in the ongoing standoff between police and the press is another matter.
Frustrations over the NYPD's credentialing process have been mounting, as detailed in this report by the website Gothamist, whose applications for press passes have been denied three times. And in sporadic incidents over the past month, reporters have been barred from covering a protest outside an Obama fund-raiser, a Daily News photographer had his press credentials pulled while covering a fire, and a police officer was caught on film intentionally blocking New York Times photographer Robert Stolarik while he was taking pictures of arrests at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in the atrium of the World Financial Center.
Royster declined to comment on specific incidents, but acknowledged that several, including Stolarik's, "have been brought to our attention and are being reviewed."
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations last weekend kicked up a fresh batch of alleged First Amendment violations.
Among them, a credentialed Democracy Now reporter allegedly "winded up with a cop’s fist on his throat," while a cameraman for the broadcast was said to have been "viciously punched" by an officer, according to the blog Photography is not a Crime. And Andrew Kelly, the also-credentialed freelance photojournalist we caught up with last week after seeing a picture of him apprently being manhandled by two men in blue, told The Village Voice "that a police officer grabbed his press pass in his hands and said 'Please let me take this card. I want to take a card so bad today.'" (The Voice noted that one of its own photographers had been subject to similar treatment.)
But Kelly told Capital that he did notice a marked change in police behavior on Saturday compared with earlier Occupy protests.
"There were some instances where for the first time, our rights were respected as media reps and we even had some big guys making sure we had good positions in a restricted area to get important photos," he said. "A very slight improvement, but an improvement nonetheless. Maybe I'm glass-half-fulling here, but I did feel a slight shift."
A shift is precisely what is hoped for among the media outlets that have been putting pressure on the NYPD to respect journalists during police actions. A key component of encouraging that shift, they believe, is to give officers training in press relations—not from a communications or P.R. angle, but from the standpoint of how two very different types of public servants can work alongside one another in tense situations without anyone's work being unduly frustrated.
New York is not the only municipality where this has been at issue recently. Back in March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an open-records request with the City of New Orleans seeking documents "pertaining to First Amendment training provided to NOPD officers," against whom the A.C.L.U. alleged "repeated interference with the public's right to photograph police conduct."
In August, after a news camerman was arrested for filming the conclusion of a police chase on Long Island, the Radio Television Digital News Association offered up such training to police, urging departments "around the country to maintain an open line of communication with media outlets and ... educate officers on proper media practices and First Amendment rights."
And an October settlement in Minnesota stemming from the arrests of three journalists during the 2008 Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities included "an agreement by the St. Paul Police Department to implement a training program aimed at educating officers regarding the First Amendment rights of the press and public with respect to police operations—including police handling of media coverage of mass demonstrations—and to pursue implementation of the training program in Minneapolis and statewide," according to a press release.
"We already had a plan in place and we are working through the process of reviewing it and presenting it to the appropriate parties," Howie Padilla, public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department, told Capital, though he declined to offer any specifics.
Royster, however, agreed to paint a picture of what's involved in the NYPD's training, which she herself conducts either at the Police Academy or the press offices at 1 Police Plaza. Training, which she described as a crash course in "coopertating with the media community and their newsgathering capacity," is available on a rolling basis, she said, and is given to new officers as well as officers being promoted to new ranks.
"What we're trying to do is reach every level of officer so that they will be informed about the media and cooperate with the media at the scene of a breaking news event," she said. "We want our officers to be aware that the media will be there to gather information and present it to the public ... and that the media is allowed anywhere the public is allowed."
Royster said the department has expanded the scope of the training in the past year and a half to include higher-ranking members of the force. There are around 34,000 members of the force in total, and she said she has personally trained more than 900 of them since joining the public information office in July of 2010.
Training sessions vary in length and content, said Royster. They generally include a lecture, handouts and a Power Point presentation that features anecdotes, visuals of NYPD press credentials, examples of lessons learned and best practices, she said, calling the training "engaging."
Royster also said that she has sometimes brought in members of the media to participate in the training.
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association and one of the signatories of the Nov. 21 letter, said he has offered the NYPD his assistance as someone who's conducted about a half-dozen similar training sessions with other police departments.
"I talk about the news cycle in general and how that's changed," he said, "about citizen journalists; that the right [to cover news events] doesn't just pertain to journalists, but that it is a First Amendment right that is everbody's."
Osterreicher said that in his own training, he has often encountered officers who are surprised to learn there are no rules in place that prevent journalists or anyone else from photographing or filming events in public.
"If you're outside and in public and you see something," he said he tells police of journalists' rights, "you can record it."
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