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NPPA, RCFP Keep Journalists Safe During Conventions

September 10th, 2012 by Justice Warren and tagged , , , , , ,

John West proudly displays his NPPA affiliation while covering protests during the DNC. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

One could easily imagine that, after seeing how well things went during the RNC in Tampa, that members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) might have let their guard down as the DNC began.  To the contrary, officers there remained on high alert throughout the convention and made use of every available resource to ensure that the DNC would go just as smoothly.

Mark Newbold, Deputy City Attorney for CMPD, said that after inclement weather deterred protestors at the RNC, CMPD officers were prepared for an increase in DNC protests.  While the number of protestors stayed below their expectations, Newbold said that his department’s preparedness allowed those who did come to protest to do so with limited police involvement.

“Most of the protestors, even the rowdy ones, have been willing to comply,” Newbold said.  “The main focus of the police is that we don’t focus on speech, we focus on criminal behavior.  You can say and do what you want as long as you don’t take violent acts against people or property.”

Protestors take a break in the middle of the street during the DNC. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

While the CMPD sought to create an open environment for demonstrations, several protestors were arrested during the convention.  However, no journalists were arrested, a fact that Newbold credits in large part to NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher, who came to Charlotte in April to help educate and train officers regarding First and Fourth Amendment rights.  Newbold said the work of the department and the NPPA helped to create understanding between journalists and police rather than confrontation.

“After things went as well as they did in Tampa I was concerned that the coverage of the protests in Charlotte might be more problematic, but fortunately the feedback I received was that the police were extremely professional, cordial  and accommodating in both cities,” Osterreicher said. “It is a credit to the Tampa and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police departments that they were not only willing to embrace the idea of allowing the media to do their jobs but that they properly trained officers from so many other agencies to adopt and adhere to that policy,” he added.

Just like during the NATO Summit in Chicago, where Superintendent Gary McCarthy led his officers and in Tampa, where Police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsboro County Sheriff David Gee led theirs – CMPD Chief of Police Rodney Monroe was out on the street directing operations. It is believed that this hands-on approach is also credited with encouraging proper behavior and discipline by officers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe out on the street with his officers. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Brian Cunningham, public information officer (PIO) for CMPD, said that an important step the department took was to place field PIOs in several locations to work with the media.  The PIOs answered journalists’ questions and informed them of where to go.  Cunningham also credits Osterreicher with helping the department develop policies such as the field PIO program.

“Mickey helped with training on working with the media for large scale events,” Cunningham said.  “We were able to train our entire department in media relations, which was critical to our success.”

Highly visible Public Information Officers were on the scene. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Journalists across the nation feared the worst in the days leading up to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  Memories of the mass arrests of protestors and journalists during the 2008 conventions in St. Paul and Denver had not faded, and the arrest of journalists across the nation had steadily increased each year since then.

Although no journalists were arrested during the DNC, on the Saturday before the convention, Washington Post photographer Bonnie Jo Mount said she was approached by Bank of America security guards, who told her that she was not allowed to photograph the outside of their building even though she was on a public sidewalk.

Mount got in touch with Osterreicher, who immediately contacted the head of Bank of America corporate security and the head of security for the building to get clarification on their policies regarding photography.  Osterreicher said that the heads of security acknowledged that Mount had every right to photograph the building from the street, and assured him that the security guards would be made aware of the policies reflecting that right.

“It was very clear from my conversations with Bank of America that they were not happy about some of their overzealous security officers and were more than willing to remedy this problem,” Osterreicher said. “Later in the week I took a picture of the security fence and a guard in front of the building and no one said a word.”

Bank of America corporate security guard outside their headquarters in Charlotte. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

There was also some Twitter traffic regarding two journalists being confronted by police at the direction of “undercover agents” who the journalists had apparently recognized and photographed. According to reports one of the journalists voluntarily deleted his images after both were stopped and searched by uniform police. No official complaints about this incident or any other interference with journalists were received by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which ran a hotline for journalists to handle any problems.

“If [the hotline] keeps one person from going to jail and allows them to get back on the street and reporting the news, then it’s worth it,” said Gregg Leslie, Interim Executive Director for RCFP.

Leslie said the hotline’s inception resulted from strife between police and the media back in 1972, when journalists felt that police were targeting them for arrest.  Since then, attorneys have stood at the ready for when a call comes through from a distressed journalist.

“Over the years it’s really been useful,” Leslie said.  “One to two times during a convention, there will be a mass arrest and reporters will get swept into it.” The NPPA and the Reporters Committee have worked together in the past but Osterreicher said the “cooperation between our organizations is a concrete example of what can be accomplished by partnering on these critical issues.”

In order to give journalists the best chance to have their charges dropped and get back to reporting, RCFP employed attorneys in the host cities of the convention.  This year those positions were assumed by Gregg Thomas and Carol LoCicero of the Tampa firm Thomas & LoCicero, and John Buchan of the Charlotte firm McGuire Woods. They attributed the fact that no calls of problems being received to the level of preparation that went into training officers for the convention.

“We informed the police from the outset that we were here and what our plans were [in the event of a journalist's arrest],” Thomas said.

LoCicero said that officers were very receptive to the training that they offered prior to the convention, noting that the Tampa Police Department implemented a policy requiring an officer to get approval from a supervisor before making an arrest of a member of the media.

Buchan especially credits the work done by NPPA and the Reporters Committee in the months prior to the convention for informing officers of press rights and the importance of remaining cognizant of those rights while protecting public safety.  Buchan said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) did a great job of using the training to see that police and journalists alike would be able to do their jobs during the convention.

“The police in Charlotte really went to school on what happened in St. Paul and Denver and especially at this year’s Chicago NATO Summit,” Buchan said.  “They didn’t want a repeat of the arrests that took place in 2008 and they did a great job implementing policies to ensure that did not happen.”

Everyone had a camera and was taking photographs or recording. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Osterreicher noted that while he still continues to deal with photographers being interfered with and arrested on an almost daily basis around the country he is very pleased that in those situations where the police have made a concerted effort to avoid such confrontations, they have for the most part not occurred. “The NPPA board of directors made a decision in January of this year to take substantive steps to avoid a repeat of the mass arrests that took place during protests at prior national conventions,” Osterreicher said. “I am very appreciative of the support and direction I received from the board and the opportunity to have helped in some small measure,” he added.

NPPA President Sean Elliot said, “this is a great example of the positive effect of pro-active efforts by NPPA and other groups to reach-out to government agencies;” adding  “journalists, not just NPPA members, owe Mickey and all those involved in these efforts, a debt of gratitude.” “It is my sincere hope that such success can be built upon and spread to more routine interactions between the police and visual journalists,” he concluded.

Posted in Access, Democratic National Convention, First Amendment, National Press Photographers Association, photographers, photojournalism, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Republican National Conventiob, Uncategorized | 38 Comments »



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