Memphis police investigated for deleting news footage

Andrea Papagianis | Newsgathering | Feature | January 31, 2012

The Memphis Police Department is investigating a complaint from a photojournalist who was briefly detained by police after he filmed an arrest and whose footage was deleted by the officers.

The National Press Photographers Association sent a letter to the Memphis police director today asking for an investigation into the complaint and offering help to further educate officers on the right of journalists to photograph arrests on public spaces.

"While it may be understandable that your officer had a heightened sense of awareness during this incident, this is still no excuse for him to not recognize a citizen's right to record an event occurring in a public place," wrote Mickey Osterreicher, counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

The police department declined to comment due to an open internal affairs investigation.

Early Sunday morning, Casey Monroe, a photographer with ABC 24 News who was not working at the time and was not carrying a videocamera, was outside a downtown restaurant when he observed officers placing the restaurant owner in the back of the squad car. The man was initially cited for a parking violation, but was placed into custody after an argument with an officer.

Monroe was watching when officers instructed him to leave. He informed the officer that he was a journalist. Asked to leave again, Monroe stated that he had a right to be there and was placed into the back of a squad car. He was quickly released.

The photographer went inside the restaurant to retrieve his cell phone. When he returned outside a number of squad cars had arrived. He introduced himself to officers as a member of the press and started videorecording the scene with his phone.

According to Monroe, an officer told him that he could not take photos of the arrest. Monroe again informed officers that he was a journalist and that he had a right to photograph police on public property.

Monroe said police then handcuffed him, took all his personal items and placed them on the roof of the squad car, but released him shortly after. When his phone was returned Monroe noticed the two videos and one photograph taken of the incident had been deleted.

“Not only is this a problem under the First amendment and certainly the Fourth amendment in terms of unreasonable search and seizure, but we’re talking about something that goes beyond search and seizure,” Osterreicher said. “We are talking about the destruction of property that belongs to someone else and that’s never permissible.”

In a similar case, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on a Maryland lawsuit defending First Amendment rights to film law enforcement in a public setting.

"The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution. They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily,” according to court documents filed on Jan. 10.

In May 2010, Baltimore police confiscated Christopher Sharp’s phone and deleted several recordings after he captured the forcible arrest of his friend on the device. Sharp filed a lawsuit against the police department citing a violation of his federal rights. His case is ongoing in a U.S. District Court in Maryland.