Photographic metadata helps convict officer over arrest of journalist

Soo Rin Kim | Newsgathering | News | November 20, 2015

Photographic evidence recently helped a New York trial judge find a New York City police officer guilty of fabricating a record to justify his arrest of a freelance photographer back in 2012.

Officer Michael Ackermann arrested New York Times freelancer Robert Stolarik as he was taking pictures of a street fight in the Bronx.

Ackermann testified in court documents that officers had been giving out a number of disperse orders when Stolarik blinded Ackermann and interfered with arrests of others on the street by flashing his camera light at the officer’s face.

The Times reported that the officer not only confiscated his equipment and press pass but also dragged him to the ground and kicked him in the back. Stolarik recounted the moment of arrest during the trial testimony that he was treated “very, very aggressively.”

The charges against Stolarik for obstructing government administration and resisting arrest were later dropped and the police department returned Stolarik’s press credentials.

But further investigations of the photographic evidence turned the case around. Not only did the photos Stolarik kept shooting throughout the arrest show several officers using force on Stolarik, but the metadata of the photos also revealed that the photographer in fact was not using a flash at that time.

During the trial, Ackermann’s counsel Michael A. Martinez said the officer had mistaken lights from his patrol car, officers’ flashlights and cellphone cameras of people on the streets for the photographer’s camera flash.

“I couldn’t believe my mind processed it that way,” Officer Ackermann testified at the trial. “I keep going over it, trying to figure out how I could make that big a mistake. I was taken aback. I can’t understand it.”

The Times reported that the series of images also shows Stolarik stepping back and complying with officers' orders.

State Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Gross found Ackermann guilty of offering a false instrument for filing. The officer is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 2 and could face up to four years in prison. The department announced Ackermann had been suspended without pay after the verdict.

Stolarik told The New York Times he hoped the decision would send the message to other officers that they needed to be careful, or find themselves in a similar situation.

“I think it’s important; it’s rare that people are held accountable for their actions,” he said. “In this case, he lied, and he lied to protect himself, and it turned on him.”

Such incidents are nothing new for Stolarik. A video showing him being pushed around and intentionally blocked by NYPD officers while trying to cover Occupy Wall Street was widely distributed in 2011.

George Freeman, the assistant general counsel for the Times until 2012 and now the executive director of the Media Law Center, wasn’t surprised by the tension between police and the media.

“It happens from time to time,” Freeman said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but more than I think it should.”

In 2011, The New York Times, joined by other prominent media organizations, sent a letter to the NYPD calling attention to the police’s treatment of the press during protests.

The police department released a new “non-interference order” and announced a stronger First Amendment training program. Media lawyers including Freeman met with then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to discuss media guidelines and offered help with First Amendment training, but the police department declined the offer.

"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," the order states.

Freeman said the stepping up of media training has not brought any solutions yet, and Ackermann obviously did not follow through with the guidelines, but things take time and more training is certainly beneficial.

“Photographers are a pretty feisty group of people and they will continue to do what they know they can do,” Freeman said. “But if they are beaten up or arrested, it can be intimidating. It takes a lot of courage and guts on photographers knowing they can be subjected to such violence.”