A high-ranking Suffolk County Police Department supervisor apologized to media representatives for the unwarranted arrest of a freelance photojournalist at a crime scene and detailed steps the department has taken to avoid future occurrences at a Press Club of Long Island program Thursday night.
“Public access is media access,” said Suffolk Police Deputy Chief Chris Bergold from the Office of the Chief of Patrol. Bergold said several steps were being taken to get that message to officers on the street. They include bringing in media experts from the FBI academy in Quantico, Va., to help train police officers.
Bergold also said the department is reviewing its media policies following the incident involving freelance photographer Phil Datz. He said it and other incidents are still being reviewed to determine what additional training or policy changes are required.
“We’re going to do an all-out training campaign to train members of our department at every rank,” he said.
Earlier this month, PCLI, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest journalism organization, issued a statement urging the Suffolk police to drop the charges. He was arrested while filming the aftermath of a police chase of drug suspects from across the street on public property.
PCLI had also demanded that the department investigate the sergeant who arrested Datz. His video shows a clear case of police abuse of authority and infringement of the journalist’s First Amendment rights.
At the PCLI program, Datz showed the widely viewed video of his arrest as well as video of previous confrontations with police at crime scenes.
Another panelist, Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association, said the organization’s members are harassed by police almost daily. However, he commended Suffolk police for dropping the charge against Datz and taking actions to prevent future problems.
Pat Dolan, news director of News 12 Long Island, said things generally go smoothly with Suffolk police, and that “we haven’t seen a pattern” like the Datz incident.
However, he did say there were problems in trying to cover the arrest of the suspects in the shooting deaths of four people at a Medford drug store in June. Bergold said that incident is also being reviewed to determine if policy changes are necessary. The officers at the scene were concerned about protecting the reporters as well as not alerting the suspect about the arrest.
Also on the panel were Dawn King of the SCPD Public Information Office and Newsday Associate Editor Cliff Schechtman. The moderator was Carolyn James, editor of the Babylon Beacon, Amityville Record and Massapequa Post.
Dominick Miserandino, PCLI president, said “This is why the Press Club of Long Island was founded. We’re proud to still be able to have an impact today.”
The Press Club of Long Island is a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, with 60 pro chapters and 250 student chapters nationwide. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.