An NYPD officer accused of roughing up and illegally arresting a New York Times photographer has been indicted on multiple charges stemming from an incident last August. Robert Stolarik, an NPPA member, was violently accosted and taken into custody while photographing Officer Michael Ackermann who was trying to arrest a teenage girl in the Bronx.
Officer Ackermann claimed Stolarik hindered police work by repeatedly aiming the flash of his camera at the officer’s face. That story crumbled under investigation by the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). The Bronx district attorney also learned that Stolarik did not have a flash on his camera at the time of the incident, and concluded the officer’s story was a lie. Ackermann now faces three felonies and five misdemeanors, and could see up to seven years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.
Working with New York Times’ Vice President and Assistant General Counsel George Freeman after the arrest, NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher sent a letter to NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne objecting to Stolarik’s unwarranted arrest and rough treatment. Freeman and Osterreicher also requested that the photographer’s equipment and press credentials, both seized at the time of the incident, be immediately returned. In addition the NPPA publicly criticized the NYPD for their actions.
Stolarik’s ordeal was especially troubling because he was arrested in direct violation of NYPD’s own Patrol Guide directives as noted in a follow-up letter from Osterreicher to Browne. Osterreicher also sent a letter to the editor, which was published in the NY Times. In it Osterreicher urged “the New York Police Department to work with us to improve training and supervision for its members.”
The NYPD returned Stolarik’s equipment in the days following the NPPA’s first letter. Osterreicher’s continued negotiations with the department resulted in the release of the photographer’s press credentials two weeks later. Ongoing efforts by George Freeman resulted in prosecutor’s ultimately dropped all charges against Stolarik.
The internal investigation that resulted in Officer Ackermann’s indictment is an encouraging sign in what was otherwise a troubling year for the NYPD’s relationship with photographers. Soon after Stolarik’s arrest, police conducted a campaign of intimidation and interference against photographers covering the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protest. Stolarik himself had been forcibly prevented from covering the actual rally the previous year. Several journalists were detained or arrested at the Occupy anniversary. The NPPA also responded to these incidents.
Incidents such as this are becoming all too common throughout the country. Many officers apparently do not know or disregard photographers’ First Amendment rights. Despite assertions two years ago that the NYPD was providing improved training to its officers the situation in New York City has not improved. “We have been unsuccessful in arranging a meeting with the new NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters (DCLM) or the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI) to discuss these issues,” said Osterreicher. “Commissioner Kelly and his staff met with members of the media after the arrests of 26 journalists in Zuccotti Park in November of 2011, after which he issued a Finest message directing members of the NYPD to cooperate with the press. At the time I said that it was a good start but since then it appears to be just another piece of paper as far too many officers and supervisory staff ignore its directives,” Osterreicher added.
On behalf of the NPPA, Osterreicher has continued to advise and train police agencies around the country in an effort to improve police-press relations. The First Amendment is not absolute but subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. While police may have the discretion to limit access when public safety or other legitimate law enforcement activities so dictate, they may not order someone to stop taking photographs or recording video in a public place, especially if other members of the public are allowed to remain and observe those activities.
As Osterreicher says in his police training: “We can do this the easy way or the hard way!” It is indeed unfortunate that rather than respecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that they are sworn to uphold some officers believe that they are a law unto themselves. For Officer Ackermann it may have been a very costly mistake to view a photographer with a camera with suspicion and contempt. Everyone has a job to do: for a police officer it is to provide public safety and enforce the law; for a visual journalist it is to gather and disseminate news. It would best serve both purposes if this case helps to encourage cooperation between the two professions rather that continued conflict. As often is the case it’s the enlightening truths that prove most elusive.
Posted in Access, DCPI Paul Browne, False Arrest, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Legal, National Press Photographers Association, New York TImes, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, NYPD, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street Arrests, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Press Credentials, Public Photography, Recording Police, Robert Stolarik | No Comments »