Yesterday, Park Police arrested 2 reporters simply because Taxi Commission interim chair Dena Reed wanted them removed. Jim Epstein, one of the reporters, has posted video showing a shocking disregard for constitutional rights from the arresting officer.
The video shows Peter Tucker, the other reporter, insisting this is a public meeting and he’s doing nothing but recording it; the officer is telling him he has to agree to stop reporting or be arrested.
Police are supposed to protect the public, not act as the private security force for people in power.
What is going through these officers’ heads? Say you’re an officer who gets a call from someone running a meeting objecting to a reporter there. You show up and see for yourself that the reporter is just sitting quietly recording or taking notes, not disrupting the meeting. What would make you think that your appropriate course of action is to get rid of that person just because the chair asked?
This isn’t an isolated incident. It relates to three troubling police-related subjects: The Park Police becoming very disrespectful toward individual liberty, the Metropolitan Police Department’s escorts of celebrities, and numerous stories of officers arresting or assaulting people for legally videotaping events.
The Park Police’s troubling behavior. The National Park Service is a paradoxical agency. It operates parks but frequently seems to not want anyone to enjoy those parks, or to be able to travel easily to and from them except by the least environmentally friendly means. It operates the venue that hosts the largest numbers of protests (the Mall), yet its police seem constantly averse to smaller and less intrusive First Amendment behaviors.
The Park Police chose to turn some silent and respectful dancing at the Jefferson Memorial into a major issue, and again overreacted to the subsequent dancing protest. They told an ABC7 news crew they couldn’t report from the Mall, which is entirely false. They even shut down all the food trucks at Farragut Square despite them operating completely legally.
MPD escorts. Today the DC Council also held a hearing on news that MPD gave Charlie Sheen a high-speed escorts, with sirens and lights, in contravention of policy, and further that they do this quite often. Our police force is not supposed to be making life easier for celebrities, or helping them reach events quickly and get through traffic.
Its mission is keeping the public safe. That public does include celebrities, but as witnesses argued at the hearing, there was no reason to believe the Sheen escort was necessary for public safety. It seems to simply involve doing the bidding of famous or important people. That isn’t far from the mindset that someone like Reed could simply ask the police to get rid of a pesky journalist and that the police would comply.
Nationwide harassment of photographers and videographers. Carlos Miller has documented many troubling cases of police blocking or even arresting people who try to take pictures or video of police activity or other public buildings and objects. Rochester, NY police arrested a women for videotaping from her own front yard. Boston police arrested a man for videotaping in a park.
Los Angeles police kept a teen in prison for 7 months after he videotaped them arresting an unrelated person; they are continuing to harass him despite him being uninvolved in the original crime.
Albuquerque police took away a reporter’s camera and deleted footage of arrests at a nightclub; Miami police pulled a gun on a citizen taking video of a police shooting.
It’s not just about people actually taping police activity. People have recently been arrested or detained for photographing a TSA checkpoint in Denver, a whale in Florida, and a courthouse in Dayton.
In this region, we’ve had problems with officers harassing people for photographing USDOT’s historic gas pumps, Union Station, and the Baltimore light rail.
Certainly, this is a minority of cases. People probably photograph federal buildings, whales, transit, arrests by police and more all the time without being harassed. People videotape on the Mall constantly and the Park Police doesn’t bother them. And for all we know, there have been times when the chair of a meeting asks officers to remove a reporter and the officers properly refuse, saying he or she is breaking no law.
But when there are so many incidents, we can say there’s a pattern. There seem to be far more incidents with the Park Police than with other police forces. Police look for patterns of behavior to solve crimes. There’s a pattern of behavior from the Park Police having trouble understanding or following the Constitution.
We hear many calls for Congress to intervene in District affairs, often on completely internal matters from those unhappy with an outcome. The Park Police, though, is a federal police force. Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress should be very concerned about their officers so blatantly disregarding the First Amendment. And DC officials should take strong action to correct this kind of behavior from the DC Taxi Commission.
Update: Reed says that Tucker insisted on placing his microphone in certain locations to get a better recording, and claims she was entitled to bar the practice or even to refuse recording entirely.