NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MISSISSIPPI · Newsgathering · June 7, 2005
Freelance photographer arrested at scene of car accident
June 7, 2005 · A freelance photographer was arrested Friday at the scene of a Hancock County, Miss., car accident where he was shooting pictures. John Wilkerson, a surveillance supervisor at a local casino who sells photos to The (Biloxi) Sun Herald, a daily newspaper, and the Sea Coast Echo, a weekly publication, was charged with refusing a lawful order and resisting arrest.
According to Wilkerson, he was taking pictures of a collision he heard about over the scanner, shooting from several angles and allowing space for the arriving ambulance crew. He was across the street from the accident when a second patrol car arrived on the scene.
Bobby Underwood, chief of patrol for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, said in an interview that the first deputy at the scene had called his shift lieutenant asking for help and complaining about a photographer who was in the way.
Both Wilkerson and the sheriff’s office agree that the second deputy approached Wilkerson and ordered him behind a boundary line. Wilkerson, who said he replied that he was taking pictures, claimed the deputy never told him where the line was.
Underwood disagreed. “The officer asked him to step back 15 feet,” he said. “He could still get all the pictures he needed.”
The police report says and Wilkerson concurs that the deputy repeated his demand before Wilkerson asked to speak with the other officer on the scene who could attest that he hadn’t interfered. The deputy refused and again asked him to step back. When Wilkerson replied that he was taking pictures, the deputy handcuffed Wilkerson’s left hand and told him he was under arrest for resisting a lawful order.
Wilkerson said he repeated his request that the deputy speak to other emergency personnel. The deputy then charged him with resisting arrest.
“The deputy asked him three times, and he refused to comply, and then the officer placed him under arrest,” said Kenny Hurt, chief investigator with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. “Then he refused to go with them. They had to carry him to the car.”
Underwood said he had just finished writing a new media policy concerning accident and emergency scene access and had let Wilkerson read it in May.
“John’s a friend, he’s a nice guy,” Underwood said. “I’m just sorry [the arrest] happened.”
Wilkerson, who was released on his own recognizance, is due to appear in court July 5. Resisting arrest and refusing a lawful order are misdemeanors in Mississippi, carrying possible $500 fines and up to 6 months in jail per violation.
“I’m not that bothered by it,” he said of the arrest. “I sort of expected it, and I felt strongly that I had a right to be there.”
Underwood said he has “always had a very, very good working relationship with the press.”
Friday’s arrest was the climax of a six-month struggle Wilkerson has had with the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department over access to emergency scenes. After every incident, he has met with supervisors at both agencies, who have worked with him to iron out access issues, Underwood and Wilkerson said.
“This is the third time there was a problem with John, we’ve never had problems otherwise,” Underwood said. “We’ve had to ask him to move back before.”
While he was taking pictures at a festival in May in Waveland, Miss., Wilkerson said a man approached him and said that he had heard the next time Wilkerson went to an emergency scene he would be arrested.