Chicago police investigate alleged deletion of arrest footage

J.C. Derrick | Newsgathering | Feature | November 22, 2011

The Chicago Police Department is investigating a Loyola University journalism professor's complaint that police detained him and deleted footage of an arrest he was filming.

Ralph Braseth, who said he is a credentialed journalist, was arrested on Nov. 12 while he himself was filming the arrest of a young black man who had jumped a turnstile at a subway station. Police spotted Braseth, who was about 40 feet away recording the incident for a documentary on urban black teens, and promptly arrested him for "obstructing an investigation," the journalism professor said.

While sitting in the back of a squad car, one of the undercover officers questioned Braseth, who identified himself as a journalist, about why he was filming them. When Braseth was let out of the car, one of the officers asked him to hand over his recording equipment, he said. The officers viewed the footage, which was of them arresting the teen, and deleted it, according to Braseth.

"As soon as he touched that button, I was thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Braseth said. He was released about 20 minutes after his arrest and no charges were filed. The police also gave him back his camera.

Braseth said he did not protest in the presence of the officers, but the next day decided to file a complaint with the police department.

"I woke up the next morning and just became incredibly angry," he said. "To actually remove something from someone and not be charged with any crime, that's wrong on so many levels."

The Chicago Police Department declined a request for comment, citing an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation into the incident.

Mickey Osterreicher, counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, wrote a letter in defense of Braseth to Chicago Superintendent of Police Garry McCarthy. Osterreicher called for the department to investigate the incident and begin training its officers on "these matters."

The letter refers to the actions of the officer as "reprehensible," adding that "behavior that chills free speech and unreasonably seizes property is extremely unprofessional, at worst it is criminal."

In an interview, Osterreicher said that the officer's deletion of Braseth's footage was a violation of the journalist's Fourth Amendment rights, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Braseth said he was at the subway station as part of a project documenting young black men and women in Chicago. Specifically, the documentary focuses on an affluent area of Chicago near two shopping malls where hundreds of young people, mostly if not all black, "hang out" every Saturday night. Braseth was looking at what drew them to the place.

Braseth, who has been filming the group for several months, said he has recorded arrests in the past. Given his history of filming arrests in the area, Braseth said he was surprised when the detaining officer "expressed his strong feelings that it was illegal to videotape police during an arrest."

Braseth said he is still weighing his options to pursue civil legal action.

"I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do, but I'm not going to let it slide. I'm going to fight," he said. "What can't happen is for that to ever happen again -- to anyone."