Hawaii Island Police Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Press Pass

The “alleged” beating of Damon Tucker “allegedly” by a Hawai`i Island Police (HIPD) officer– the quotation marks because neither of those two “facts” seem to be in much dispute now– began to seep into the mainstream corporate media this week with two articles taking two decidedly different views of the incident.

The headlines alone presaged the coverage with Hawai`i News Now (HNN)– the name for the combined TV news programs on KGMB, KHNL and KFVE– reporting “Big Island blogger claims police brutality” and the Big Island’s much reviled Hawai`i Tribune-Herald merely noting that “Man alleges police assault.”

While the HNN coverage stresses that Tucker’s blog “inform(s) Big Island residents and promotes Hawaii” and that he was taking photographs while covering an event, the HTH piece gets 634 words into the piece to merely note that Tucker “operates an Internet blog about the Big Island” and makes no connection between his presence at the scene and his work.

The HTH piece does identify the arresting officer– whom Tucker identified as the officer who allegedly beat him– as James Waiamau.

Both stories include a statement from Hawaii County Assistant Police Chief Henry Tavares refusing to make any “additional statement” other than to note that Tucker was arrested for obstructing government operations and, more importantly, that “(t)he Hawaii Police Department recognizes that the media and the public have every right to photograph police activity in a public place from a safe distance.”

Tucker, by the way, claims he was across the street from the police action at the time he was taking the pictures.

While it should be noted that anyone can take photos of police from a safe distance in a public place, the issue that seems to have captivated the blogs is the twofold question of whether Tucker, in covering an event is, in fact a “reporter” and does it matter if he is when it comes to his right to photograph the police from a “safe distance”?

And, are bloggers who report on things as reporters… and, assuming the answer is yes, does than make the blogger who reports a journalist?

While there are professional journalist organizations no serious journalists suggest that there should be any official credentialing restriction of who is and isn’t a journalist. Not only is it a question of what the requirements would be and who would set them but the first amendment pretty much guarantees the freedom from government interference in reporting.

The fact is that the act of reporting makes one a reporter– something that more and more reporters’ “shield laws” recognize, including ours in Hawai`i. And while some may quibble over whether someone who simply sits in their underwear and pontificates is reporting anything, Tucker, by going to an event, taking photos and writing it up for public consumption is certainly a reporter, even though he himself had at times seemed torn as to whether to call himself one.

Professional journalist Tiffany Edwards Hunt at her Big Island Chronicle site says it isn’t as much whether Tucker was reporting as it was whether he was acting as a reporter should in a situation like that. She wrote that:

Damon’s greatest mistake in this story is not identifying himself as soon as the police officer told him to stop taking pictures.

At that point he should have said, “my name is Damon Tucker and I maintain a blog. Where can I stand to continue taking photographs?” (He didn’t identify himself until after he was hand-cuffed.)

Damon will likely monetarily gain from this, and hopefully us media professionals can asset some kind of protocol for journalists and residents who act like journalists. But it is definitely time for police and prosecutors to get more sophisticated about dealing with the public.

Slamming people to the ground when you don’t want them taking photographs?! Come on. The County of Hawaii will have to pay dearly for that sort of heavy handedness.

And Damon are you ready to refer to yourself as a media professional yet?

Hunt’s queries may get to the crux of the matter– that one can be a reporter without being a journalist, especially in an age of the “new media” where “citizen journalists” abound.

The fact is that while many professional journalists point to the “responsibilities” that go with the “rights” conferred on journalists, it’s a matter of debate what those responsibilities are and whether in fact there are any at all.

Surely Julian Assange of Wikileaks would argue there are few if any responsibilities. That’s why many professionals argue he is not a journalist.

But in the case of Tucker and others who engage in the act of reporting the question is what kind of responsibilities do they have if they are denied the special privileges that journalists are afforded by government officials, especially police.

Hunt argues that Tucker should have identified himself. But would that have made a difference? She also noted that:

I too agree that we the public have a right to take photographs. But we also need to speak up and assert that right when an officer tries to fell us to stop taking photos. We are to ask where police want us to stand in order to not hinder their operations.

If police were sophisticated they would have their officers trained on dealing with the media or media posers who post footage on their blogs, Facebook or YouTube. Next time the police officer will detect the photographer / picture taker to the “staging area” and call in the PIO… That’s how it is done elsewhere.

Well, maybe, in a perfect world but the problem is that there is a history of disrespect for “bloggers” and even reporters and journalists who aren’t employed by the “right” media on the Big Island. Apparently, as on Kaua`i, the HIPD does not even issue “press passes” any more which, as we noted yesterday, are– or were– used to allow reporters behind police lines.

And if they did they probably wouldn’t issue one to Tucker.

In addition, if “news” happens to “break out” unexpectedly and a reporter engaged in covering another event is standing there with a camera– as apparently happened last Friday– should they have to stop and chance missing “the shot” to ask where to go to take a picture of it, especially if they are a safe distance from the disturbance?

The fact is that we would not capitulate to the protocol that Hunt described due to the potential for abuse on the part of the police. Because it is the police who are requesting a privilege in asking that someone voluntarily suspend their right to take photographs of police (in a public place from a safe distance). With the history of abuse of that privilege, both here and across the mainland, it makes that request one that can’t be ethically granted by a journalist, reporter or anyone else.

It appears this story has legs. And, as Larry Geller at Disappeared News wrote Sunday, related stories are being repeated across the county with increasing frequency lately.

One more note– among the comments on Hunt’s stories is a discussion of the fact that there are video cameras all over the town of Pahoa (where the incident took place) due to the police’s “weed and seed” program there.

Unless and until the rights of not just reporters but all citizens are respected by authorities, credentialing journalists and burdening them with rules of engagement will have to wait for a mutual respect that, we predict, will be a long time coming.

THE BEAT AND THE BEATEN


Journalist Andy Parx has covered Kaua`i government and politics for over 30 years in print and on local TV. He currently writes a daily on-line news, commentary and analysis column at "got windmills?- The Daily Tilt."

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  • Thomas

    Not all police departments agree……
    Check this out……Its up to us to stop theses abuses now…

    Police Say They Can Detain Photographers If Their Photographs Have ‘No Apparent Esthetic Value’

    http://www.activistpost.com/2011/08/police-say-they-can-detain.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  • G.T.Gerrard

    Using video recording to document police activity is a constitutionally protected right. It is vital to deter police misconduct and expose it when it happens!

    This shifts the balance of power from law enforcement agencies to the communities they are sworn to protect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  • Mark Dombroski

    Also regarding the distinction between HNN and HTH. HTH has closed down comments to the news article

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  • Mark Dombroski

    Aside from determining and clarifying the appropriate media photography protocol, the real issue is an abuse of police power. Law enforcement are public servants and have the choice to use appropriate force when necessary. Reframe the situation if the officer brutalized a young child or elderly person for filming across the street with a camera phone.

    As Damon posed no threat to the operation, the officer’s behavior is little higher than a schoolyard bully and illustrates the complete disregard to the value and dignity of another human being. The behavior also appears to be systemic within the police department as a culture of aggression towards the community and excessive and unnecessary use of power.

    Law enforcement has the opportunity to partner or alienate their communities in which they operate. They can partner with the community and bring positive change. Or they can engage the core of their community with unnecessary violating force.

    By the very nature of the police officer wanting to restrict video filming of the operation, speaks to the reluctance and fear towards transparency and accountability.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  • Concerned Citizen

    Hindering my a**! Across of the street?! Give me a break! The police here behave like Hitler’s Gestapo!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2