Scene: a car accident on Manhattan Ave and 109th Street. A white Infiniti sports coupe turned left too quickly and rear-ended a parked, empty SUV. There was little damage to the SUV but severe front-end damage to the Infiniti.
The issue: I, as a reporter, grabbed my camera because it was my instinct. When I see more than one police car with its lights on accompanied by several ambulances, I go find out what’s up. I walk up, start snapping photos. My angle isn’t that great, so I switched to the other side of the road to get a better view of the car. As soon as I did that, the white-shirt NYPD investigator said to two of the other officers there “who’s that taking pictures?” while pointing at me. The two other officer—in plain clothes—came up to me and started harassing and belittling me with questions. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
I gave the standard reply; I’m Turner Cowles, and I’m a journalist. “Well where are your credentials? We need to see them.” Dude, I’m in a baseball cap, flip-flops and jeans. Do I look like I have my credentials on me? “I don’t have them, my apartment is right there; I just came out here to see what was going on.” “Well, go get your credentials!” he barked.
Now, I’ll admit I’m a little argumentative; that’s what makes me such a good reporter. I didn’t leave immediately, and they got uppity. Really uppity. Now, let me reiterate the scene. I’m on a public sidewalk of a public street. I am a private citizen; whether I work for media has nothing to do with my right to take photographs in public.
“Why are you still standing in front of me arguing?” “This isn’t a debate,” the other one chimed in. That’s where he was wrong, but I decided that, at 10p.m. on a Friday night, I had better things to do than wind up in jail for upsetting a lowly NYPD officer. I went home, but I wasn’t done for the night. I looked for my press pass; I couldn’t find it—how typical? So, instead I left my big camera at home and went back with only my iPhone. I wasn’t going to let these cops infringe my first amendment right. The reason they gave when I asked them why I couldn’t take pictures was “this is an official investigation.”
In no way was I impeding their investigation. I was well outside the crime tape. My camera wasn’t flashing. They just didn’t like that I was there taking pictures of them working. Well guess what: too damn bad.
This is my job. I’m not going to let you violate my rights. Sorry I’m not sorry officers, but you were wrong and I was right. I was standing as a private citizen, with my private camera, on a public street documenting a public occurrence. That’s. My. Job. I know NYPD is horrible about local media; even New York Times reporters say NYPD is notorious for their stubborn lack of transparency. Same response: too damn bad. That’s our job. All of you officers decided to work as public figures. That was your own decision, not mine. You chose a profession in which you knew you’d deal with reporters.
On top of all this, a few weeks ago a classmate got an email from NYPD about a story we were working on. It said, “writing anything good about NYPD anytime soon?”
NYPD, if you’re reading this, I want to let you in on a little secret. We don’t write badly about you because we hate you. We don’t not write good things about you because we hate you. It’s impossible to include you in our stories when you blatantly refuse to speak to us about anything. These stories are too important to just not run because the police won’t talk to us about them. Here’s a piece of advice—we’re going to run out stories with or without your input. We’d rather have your input to make our story seem fuller, and I promise you’d rather have your input because without it there’s no way for us to tell your “side of the story.”
As for the impeding on my journalistic duty? Shame on you.
All the photos I took before I was shooed:
(Note I’m well outside the crime tape)