The Detroit Free Press is awaiting the results of an internal Detroit Police Department investigation before deciding whether to take legal action against officers that detained a photographer and confiscated recording equipment while she was filming on public property last week.
The Free Press and National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) condemned the police department this week after an officer wrestled a newspaper-issued iPhone from Free Press photographer Mandi Wright while she was filming a suspect's arrest.
Wright was then taken to a precinct and held for over six hours, at one point left alone by officers with the suspect she had been filming.
After she was released, the Free Press demanded police hand back Wright's iPhone. But when it was returned, the memory card was missing. Wright has not yet been charged.
The video, saved in the phone's internal memory and posted on the Free Press website, revealed an unmarked police officer approaching the photographer and grabbing her as the footage cuts off. Wright was wearing press credentials and is heard announcing herself as a journalist.
Detroit police spokesman Phillip Cook said the department could not comment because the case was still an ongoing investigation. The Free Press report revealed that Wright and her colleague at the scene were both interviewed by internal affairs after the absent memory card was reported.
Free Press editor Paul Anger said the newspaper will wait for a response from police before deciding whether to take legal action.
While stories of police officers unlawfully obstructing photographers from recording are "problematic," NPPA lawyer Mickey Osterreicher said Wright's case is all too familiar.
It's true, he said, that the First Amendment is not absolute and the press is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. But courts have consistently ruled that a private citizen filming on a publicly owned city street is securely protected.
"Would it be reasonable if the officer asked her to step off the sidewalk onto the street? Or to step back a few feet? Of course," Osterreicher said. "What's not reasonable is to ask her to turn off and then seizing her camera."
The problem in most cases, said experts, is the lack of knowledge within police offices. Journalists usually know their rights, but oftentimes police don't and will unknowingly violate a person's civil liberties.
"Higher-ranking officials have a much stronger grasp of what the constitutional rights of everyday citizens are than the officers on the streets," ACLU staff attorney Dan Korobkin said. "This incident calls for more training and more awareness by individual cops about what kind of activity the First Amendment protects."
Detroit Deputy Police Chief James Tolbert told the Free Press on Monday that he expects a department-wide memo will remind officers that they cannot stop anyone from videotaping them in public.