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NPPA Talks to New York Photographers About Their Rights in the Field

On Monday, October 1 2012, Mickey Oesterreicher, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, and Todd Maisel, NPPA NY Chapter Head and photographer for the Daily News addressed a group of photographers at the Tribes Gallery in Lower Manhattan about the rights of photographers while working in public spaces around New York City, and best practices in dealing with police.

Here’s the complete 90 minute audio of the talk: NPPA Talk (mp3)

Key points:

* Remember, when out in the field it doesn’t matter whether you have the right to photograph or not, it’s about whether the officer commanding the scene cares about that or not. Reasonable requests for distance are ok (two arms lengths or more from a cop are recommended).

* Defining who is a journalist today very difficult. For cops seeing a crowd in a protest, everybody is the enemy. If you can visually distinguish yourself, e.g. by wearing a suit jacket and tie, you will be more easily identifiable as an observer. Also, if at the outset of the event your intent is to document and record, you should qualify as a journalist, whether you have formal credentials or not. However, you can’t go to as a protester with a camera and then claim to be a journalist when you get arrested.

* Work in pairs, groups, watch each other’s back, and make sure somebody is recording video, especially in situation where you expect a confrontational police. Arrest reports are often wonderful works of fictions, and there is a presumption in court that a police officer tells the truth unless you can rebut it. So, if you’re nervous about the police’s reaction to media appearing on the scene, protect yourself by having a video camera rolling from the moment you walk up on to the scene, not just after you or a colleague get arrested.

* Talking back at police will get you in trouble, while you could be out there taking pictures instead of arguing about your rights. That said, if you have a video or audio recording of the police hindering your work, that can always be taken care of later on, in federal court with a 1983 action. However, for you to be able to pursue a 1983 filing, all charges against you have to be either completely dismissed or you have to be found not guilty in court. If you take an ACD or plea down to lower charges, there will be an assumption of wrong doing on your part and any action against your arresting officer will not be successful. A 1983 action claims that your civil rights have been violated under the color of law.

* Often, the police will offer ACD’s to get rid of cases, especially when they just arrested a journalist to stop them from recording what they came to document. NPPA suggests that journalists don’t take ACD’s when they get arrested in the field to reserve the possibility of a 1983 action.

* Key however is, try not to get arrested in the first place. Be respectful and affirmative to police, and don’t waste your time arguing if there’s a way to get a different angle. Your job is to get the pictures or the video, so keep moving and don’t get hung up in an unnecessary argument. Also, try to address officers by their rank. It will get you respect.

* Another caveat: If a journalist is seen as being too close/too friendly to the demonstrators, police starts seeing you as one of them, rather than a neutral observer.

* “Serve & Protect” has evolved in many officers’ minds into “I need to protect this civilian from having their picture taken”, or when they know they’re involved in something they shouldn’t do. Push-back against photographers has definitively increased.

* Link to letter by Mickey Oesterreicher to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, dated October 1, 2012, following issues and arrests of journalists during the September 17th Occupy Wall Street protests.

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