Suffolk County Police will establish a Police-Media Relations Committee, increase training for officers and pay a photojournalist $200,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed which the Press Club of Long Island intervened to help get the charges dropped. The settlement with Phil Datz, a freelance videographer with Stringer News Network¬∏ requires the department to establish the committee to ensure that such First Amendment violations aren’t repeated. PCLI is working with the department to form the committee, which is expected to begin meeting this summer. The Suffolk County Legislature voted to approve the settlement June 17. The settlement also mandates that police hold annual media relations training for officers. The Press Club of Long Island is pleased to hear that the Suffolk County Legislature and Police Department will be taking greater action towards knowledge of the First Amendment and its protection for the public and media to observe and record police activity in public locations,” PCLI president Chris R. Vaccaro said. “Members of the media should not be restricted from reporting in areas of a crime scene that are open to the public. We also commend the parties involved on the creation of a Police-Media Relations Committee. PCLI had called on the department to drop an obstruction of governmental administration charge against Datz following his July 2011 arrest while filming a police chase crash in Bohemia. Prosecutors cleared Datz less than two weeks later. An internal affairs probe later found that the sergeant who made the arrest violated department rules. The sergeant arrested the photographer even though he was wearing his press credentials at the time, after ordering the lensman to stop filming the crime scene and leave. When Datz moved a block away and continued filming, he was taken into custody and his equipment seized. Datz posted a video of the incident on YouTube. This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment and for the public good, Datz said. When police arrest journalists just for doing their job, it jeopardizes everyone’s ability to stay informed about important news in their community. Journalists have a duty to cover what the police are doing, and this settlement strengthens the ability of journalists and the community to hold the police accountable for their actions as well as protecting the First Amendment rights of the public. Police referred requests for comment on the settlement to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s spokeswoman, Vanessa Baird-Streeter. “We believe this is a fair settlement which underscores the pivotal role the media serves for the police department and the public,” she said. “The enhanced training of the department and creation of a media relations committee will serve the residents of Suffolk County well.” Lawyers for Datz, who were joined in the suit by attorneys from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), were also pleased with the outcome. We are delighted that Suffolk County has now joined other police departments, the U.S. Department of Justice and numerous courts across the country in recognizing that the public and press have a First Amendment right to photograph and record police officers performing their duties in a public place, a right that is essential to newsgathering and the free discussion of government affairs, said Datz’s Manhattan-based lawyer, Robert Balin, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. This settlement is a huge victory not just for Phil Datz, but for all journalists and Suffolk County residents. The changes in policy and training agreed to by the county are major steps toward transforming the SCPD culture that led to this unfortunate incident. The NYCLU and the NPPA, which have repeatedly sued law enforcement across New York State to prevent it from harassing photographers and journalists, echoed the sentiment. In our society, people have a clear right to document police activity in public places, said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. This right is especially important when it comes to documenting police interactions with the community. We hope this settlement strengthens the ability of journalists and everyone to hold the police accountable for their actions and keep members of the community informed. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the NPPA, added: The National Press Photographers Association commends Suffolk County for working with Phil Datz and his counsel in order to turn a far too commonplace First Amendment violation into a constructive resolution of the case. The real challenge now will be to ensure the ongoing training of SCPD officers in order for Suffolk County to be a positive role model for other law enforcement agencies,” he continued. “The NPPA is also extremely appreciative of the tenacious advocacy by Rob Balin, Alison Schary and Sam Bayard of the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine who worked tirelessly on Phil’s behalf. And finally our thanks go to Phil Datz for not only having to endure the abridgment of his civil rights but for his willingness to stand up for his rights and the rights of others. The Police-Media Relations Committee will include a commanding officer in the SCPD, the executive officer of the department’s Public Information Bureau as well as members of local print and broadcast media outlets, plus a freelance videographer or photographer.
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-By Timothy Bolger

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