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Journalists detained for taking photographs outside U.S. Capitol

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering    

Journalists detained for taking photographs outside U.S. Capitol

  • An editor and intern were detained by U.S. Capitol Police after taking photographs of security checkpoints around Capitol, and the intern’s camera and notebook were confiscated.

Aug. 9, 2004 — A journalism intern and the editor of a biweekly newspaper in Washington, D.C., were detained by U.S. Capitol Police Friday afternoon for taking photographs of roadblocks set up last week in response to an increase in the nation’s terror alert.

Kathryn Sinzinger, editor and publisher of The Common Denominator , and American University junior-to-be Michael Hoffman, a summer intern at the newspaper, were each detained after being spotted taking pictures outside the U.S. Capitol. Officers confiscated Hoffman’s disposable camera and notebook, despite informing officers he was a working journalist, according to Sinzinger.

“I don’t know what criteria they’re using” to stop people, Sinzinger said. “He was treated like he was a terrorist.”

Hoffman, who was not carrying a press credential, was ordered to show his driver’s license. After nearly an hour, officers returned his notebook but kept the camera. The negatives and one set of prints were returned to the Denominator ‘s office later that day. However, Capitol Police kept a second set of prints.

According to Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford, a spokesperson for the U.S. Capitol Police, the second set of prints were returned to the Denominator on Saturday, after the photographs were deemed not to pose any “security threat.”

Sinzinger was also detained on Friday, in a separate incident, after taking photographs of a security checkpoint outside the Capitol. She said she was in the area on business, and decided to take her own pictures of the roadblocks. She was held for 15 minutes and asked to show her driver’s license and press credentials. Sinzinger said her camera was never confiscated.

“I find it sad that we now need walking papers in the United States of America,” she said.

The Denominator is a biweekly newspaper that bills itself as “Washington’s Independent Hometown Newspaper.”

Friday was the final day of Hoffman’s summer internship. He is currently on vacation with his family and cannot be reached for comment, Sinzinger said.

Despite the substantial media attention the incidents have garnered — Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) held a press conference Saturday, calling the officers’ actions “shameful” — Sellers-Ford said neither journalist was detained. They were not required to present identification or answer questions, she said.

“Anyone taking a picture of anti-terrorism measures or security efforts are subject to what we call a ‘contact,’ an informal conversation,” Sellers-Ford said. “We want to know the purpose of taking pictures.”

She said Capitol officers have made “several contacts” as a result of “suspicious activities” since the national threat level was elevated in New York City, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1. None of the “contacts” have led to an arrest, Sellers-Ford said. Everyone has cooperated with officers.

After the terror alert was raised last week, the Capitol Police Department set up 14 vehicle checkpoints and closed an entire street to traffic.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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