Members of The Deadline Club’s governing board met recently with New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his chief spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, to discuss relations between the city’s 35,000 uniformed police officers and the working press. In a wide ranging, 90-minute conversation, they discussed the arrests of journalists during the coverage of Occupy Wall Street, the training and instruction received by police officers on working with reporters, and the department’s public information policies and press credentialing process.
The meeting at NYPD headquarters was requested by The Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, to address lingering tensions since the arrests of journalists when protesters were cleared from New York’s Zuccotti Park last fall. Board members in attendance included President J. Alex Tarquinio, Assistant Treasurer Colin DeVries, and Executive Council Members Howard Goldberg and Mark J. Prendergast.
The Deadline Club delegation impressed upon the commissioner that our goal was to ensure that journalists have access to cover and bear witness to all events in the city’s public space, especially when they involve constitutionally protected First Amendment activities such as the right to assembly and the right to free speech. That particularly applies when the police and demonstrators come into contact with each other. The delegation urged the commissioner to tell his officers that they must respect the presence of working journalists among demonstrators, whether by chance or by choice, so long as it is consistent with both public safety and the law. We likened this to journalists “embedding” with military forces abroad.
The commissioner responded that the department respected the job that journalists do covering police events, and wanted journalists to report on police officers’ activities and “get their story out.” He said the department had not planned to exclude the press while clearing protesters from Zuccotti Park. He said the arrests of journalists and other activities that prevented them from bearing witness to the events resulted from individual police officer actions. At the time, he said, it was not always easy to distinguish between journalists and demonstrators.
Regarding the issuance of NYPD press passes, the delegation told the commissioner and deputy commissioner of complaints from long-time press pass holders who were finding the renewal process more difficult. The commissioner responded that eligibility was based on whether the job that a journalist does includes covering police actions. That meant that some editors who were no longer in the field might not receive a new pass when they reapply, he said, but it was necessary to have a uniform set of guidelines. The delegation, Commissioner Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Browne discussed various ways to improve the credential system, as well as the need to impress upon officers that a press pass should never be used to exclude a reporter from covering an event that the general public has access to.
The delegation asked the commissioner and deputy commissioner to describe key changes in training and instruction, if any, since the journalist arrests last fall. Commissioner Kelly responded that sergeants were the focus of ongoing command efforts to impress upon the ranks the importance of journalist access to police events. Deputy Commissioner Browne pointed out that officers were trained not to restrict photojournalists from covering news in any public space. If an incident occurs to the contrary, Browne said the photographer should report it to his office, the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information (DCPI), which would investigate whether training or disciplinary actions were necessary.
Finally, the delegation proposed that the commissioner or deputy commissioner participate in workshops with members of the press to better acquaint each side with the roles, duties and rights of the other. The Deadline Club plans to organize the first of these workshops with the department soon. Details will be announced through the club’s website and email list.
The Deadline Club hopes to continue this open and frank dialog with the New York Police Department.