The New York Times is Hella Tired of NYPD Blocking Its Photographers

New York Police officers continue to interfere with photographers and reporters trying to cover news, and a New York Times photographer who was prevented from shooting an arrest at an Occupy Wall Street rally last weekend said police had reason to hide their actions from the press.

The department’s treatment of reporters in the field has been so bad, media outlets say, that 13 news organizations signed a second letter to the New York Police Department from a New York Times lawyer on Wednesday, demanding responses and follow-up after their first scathing criticism of the department’s handling of the press. The new complaint to police comes after two officers prevented Times freelance photographer Robert Stolarik from photographing a protester’s arrest at Sunday’s rally in support of Occupy Oakland, the letter says. The letter, which Capital New York posted in full, cites a Times storythat reported “officers blocked the lens of a newspaper photographer attempting to document the arrests.” 

The police’s interference with the press extends past Occupy protests, the organizations say. An inspector threatened New York Daily News photographer David Handschuh at last year’s Macy’s Day parade, theNational Press Photographers Association writes, and another Daily News reporter had his press credentials pulled while covering a fire in December, Capital New York reported.

We’ve reached out to the New York Police Department for comment, and will update this account when they respond.

Update: The department responded to The Times lawyers with a letter of its own, explaining the scope and nature of its updated media training. Scroll to the bottom of this post for more.

Stolarik told The Atlantic Wire on Wednesday that after two officers put their hands in front of his camera lens, a sergeant told him they had every right to do so, since he was shooting while an arrest was in progress. The arrest, he said, was messy. “It was an un-badged officer who was making the arrest. He didn’t identify himself as an officer, and he threw a girl to the ground,” Stolarik said. The officer “was in plain clothes. The girl didn’t do anything, so maybe they just didn’t want it to be documented.” When Stolarik tried to photograph it, “one officer had his hand on the lens of my camera, pushing it down. The other was in front.” Reporter Colin Moynihan’s account of the arrest says uniformed officers ultimately took the protester into custody:

A few moments later, on Park Avenue, a man wearing dark clothes and wearing no visible badge grabbed a woman by the arm and threw her to the ground. Uniformed officers arrested her and a second woman as other officers blocked the lens of a newspaper photographer attempting to document the arrests.

Stolarik has been here before, but the last time he was stopped from shooting an arrest, during another Occupy protest last December, somebody took video of it, and the department responded with an investigation. This time, no video has surfaced. But Stolarik’s become sort of a poster child for the Timesand its colleagues’ case against the police. In the demands put forth in Wednesday’s letter, Stolarik’s name comes up twice, cited as the only full investigation the department’s carried out in a case of interfering with the press. 

The media outlets first wrote to the department in November, after several reporters were arrested while covering the city’s crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. After a Thanksgiving meeting, the department pledged to provide first-amendment training to its officers, Wednesday’s letter says. It requests the department to provide details of that training, as well as updates on officer discipline, and results of a meeting among borough task force commanders. But the media groups’ first demand is its most intensive, as it calls for a written response to each case of press interference that’s been brought to the department:

As for Stolarik, he said he hadn’t even reported the interference to the paper. Interference by the police, he said, was “a pretty regular thing,” and by the time he’d finished shooting on Sunday, “I was just so tired.” But tired or not, Stolarik’s become something of an it-boy for the New York press’s showdown with police, at least until other internal investigations start coming to light. 

Update (6:10 p.m. EST): The New York Police Department hasn’t responded to us, but Deputy Commissioner Paul Brown did respond to the letter from The New York Times. In his letter to The Times’ attorneys on Wednesday afternoon, Brown wrote that two incidents involving reporters at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden last December (including the one involving Stolarik) had resulted in reprimands. But those have been the only two so far.

Brown also outlined the department’s training efforts following The Times’s initial letter, saying 1,600 new officers had received training in dealing with the media, as well as sergeants, inspectors, and bureau commanders throughout the force. Of that training, Browne wrote:

I emphasized 1st Amendment protections, guideline requirements, and addressed specific scenarios. For example, periodically, we receive complaints that an officer may try to deter a photographer, even one positioned outside of the crime scene, from taking the photograph of a dead body before it has been covered. I’ve used this as an example where subject matter is the photographer’s concern, not the officer’s. The message was well received, no objections were voiced, and the commanders said they would do their best to see that policy is adhered to in the field.  I’ll send you training material under separate cover.