Photojournalist arrested after filming police on public street

Clara Hogan | Newsgathering | Feature | August 2, 2011

A New York police officer arrested a freelance photojournalist Friday after he attempted to film a police scene on a public street, outraging First Amendment and civil liberties advocates. The department has since said it plans to drop the charge.

Suffolk County police charged cameraman Phil Datz, of the Long Island-based Stringer News Service, for “obstruction of governmental administration” after he filmed police on the side of the road arresting suspects who had allegedly led officers on a police chase in Bohemia.

The interaction between Datz and the officer who arrested him was caught on tape and posted to YouTube.

Footage shows a sergeant approaching Datz and yelling at him repeatedly to “go away, go away now.” Datz asked the officer how far he should move back, and the officer told him he needed to leave the scene entirely. The video then shows the officer grabbing Datz’s press badge, asking his name and saying: “I want you to go away and not stand here and argue with me, otherwise you’re about going to be locked up.”

The video then shows the officer continuously yelling at Datz to leave. When Datz asked why, the officer said “because it’s a current investigation” and “an active scene.”

“You understand I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and there’s nothing you can hold over my head,” the officer said.

The video then shows Datz returning to his car and moving more than a block away from the scene to continue filming. Members of the public, including children, were allowed to stand near the police scene.

Once Datz was spotted further away, the police officer sped toward him in his patrol car. The video shows Datz quickly try to explain that he called the police department’s public information office, but before he can finish his sentence, the officer orders him to put his camera down and informs him that he is under arrest.

“The street was open to the public. There were cars driving up and down the street, there were kids walking past the scene,” Datz told New York radio station WINS. “The sergeant had to get in his vehicle to drive down to me because I was so far away.”

Datz was charged with obstruction of governmental administration, a misdemeanor, and released from jail after a few hours. His court date is set for September.

The Long Island Press reported the Suffolk County Police Department is working to drop the charges. Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said the department is reviewing the matter internally and plans to hold a media-relations refresher training seminar for officers.

“I am working with the Suffolk County District Attorney to have the arrest nullified,” Dormer said. “The police department believes in keeping an open line of communication with the media and we will be reviewing the department’s policy concerning involvement with the news media.”

The incident is one of many videos posted on YouTube showing authorities arresting or intimidating journalists.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, sent a letter to Dormer on Monday. Osterreicher said in the letter that the officer who arrested Datz "acted in an angry and unprofessional manner,” and with disregard to First Amendment rights.

“The officer stated he has been 'doing this' (his job) for thirty years and yet rather than remain at the scene 'of an active investigation' he chose to drive his patrol vehicle at a high rate to a location a block away to arrest Mr. Datz,” Osterreicher said. “While in some situations the press may have no greater rights than those of the general public, they certainly have no less right of access on a public street, especially where a crime scene perimeter has not been clearly established.”

The public and media have a right to videotape in public places without being harassed by authorities, and this right is especially important when it comes to recording police interaction with community members because such depictions have brought to light wrongdoing in the past, said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is monitoring the case.

“If we’re seeking a society with true justice, we need to be able to produce transparency,” Sinha said. “In this case, the police department in Suffolk County showed a pretty disturbing disregard for First Amendment rights as it relates to documenting police interaction.”

Sinha added that this incident should serve as an “urgent call to action” for the police department to create a specific policy regarding interaction with media’s right to film in public spaces.

“Instead of trying to intimidate the public, officers need to be educated about First Amendment rights and the public’s right to film in public places," he said. "They should be taught how to interact with people who are recording in public places and taught not to restrain them or threaten arrest, all of which chills speech and hinders constitutional rights.”