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Police impersonate reporters in ploy to end hostage crisis

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  1. Newsgathering
From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

Newark police seized a video camera from a news crew as part of a scheme to get closer to a man who was holding his nine-year-old son hostage.

Some news organizations and advocacy groups have claimed that schemes involving media impersonation by police endanger journalists by making them appear suspect to criminals.

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Police officers in Newark decided to represent themselves as members of the news media in order to grant a hostage-taker’s request for a news interview and gain access to his home, where he was holding his nine-year old son hostage on June 13. His wife and mother-in-law were already dead inside the house.

After the suspect requested an interview, officers at the scene decided they would impersonate reporters, but could not find a convincing camera to use. They approached New Jersey Network cameraman John Williams around 8:30 a.m. and told him that they needed his camera. NJN is a PBS-affiliated station.

Williams told The (Newark) Star-Ledger that he believed he had no choice in the matter. He turned over his credentials and camera, and gave the officers a brief tutorial on how to operate the equipment.

Williams reported that the police took the camera into the house. But before the “interview” with suspect Ali Kemoum began, the police decided to use a camera borrowed from the Newark Fire Department instead.

According to a press release issued by the police, Sgt. David Wood of the robbery-homicide squad “posed as a camera operator using a professional television camera that was loaned to the police department.”

Kemoum agreed to the police’s terms — an “interview” for the release of his son. But shortly after releasing his son, Kemoum realized he had been tricked and retreated upstairs.

An hour later, Kemoum came out of the house and was arrested after he was told that his son was asking for him at the hospital. The police did not know that to be the case, police director Joseph Santiago told The New York Times.

William’s camera was returned to him two hours later, but the police had confiscated the tape because it could be used as evidence. NJN Spokeswoman Ronnie Weyl said the tape was returned later that day.

Incidents of media impersonation by police have caused some concern about the safety of journalists.

“Such actions compromise the perceived independence of all journalists and increase the risks they face daily in covering dangerous news stories,” Ann Cooper, executive director of The Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.

“While we understand that police often find themselves in desperate situations, and that some law experts believe the confiscation of a camera in such a situation is legal, we hope this disturbing tactic does not become a trend,” Cooper said.

“It just shouldn’t be done,” Jerome Aumente, a professor at Rutgers University, told The Star-Ledger. “It’s tough enough (for a reporter) to cover a bad situation without having a bull’s-eye on your back because the criminals believe you’re not really part of the press but part of the law enforcement.”