Sunday, November 8, 2015

Meet the Press

It was in a section about "journalism," and they called it "When Photographs Become Evidence." Clearly, the Times (and writer Niko Koppel) thought it was about the power of the photograph to tell the story.  

And yeah, it was.  After all, it's the photos of cops arresting a teenage girl in the South Bronx (and of the cops attacking him for taking them) that led to one of the cops slamming Times freelance photographer Robert Stolarik (he was on assignment at the time) having his camera slammed into his face, getting slammed to the ground and kicked. Then, of course, he was arrested, held several hours (not longer, one suspects, because the Times) and charged with obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct, harassment and resisting arrest.  That was back in August.  

But the photos did change things, and that's the point of the latest Times story
The decision to drop charges against Robert Stolarik for interfering with an arrest he had been photographing in the Bronx in 2012 and instead to prosecute an arresting officer came after prosecutors scrutinized the physical evidence: Mr. Stolarik’s digital images.
. . .
What Mr. Stolarik did not realize then was that a sequence of 60 photographs he took leading up to his arrest would provide crucial evidence that not only resulted in having prosecutors drop the charges against him, but also charge one of the arresting officers instead. Last month, Officer Michael Ackermann was convicted of falsifying a record to justify the arrest of Mr. Stolarik.
“Photos played a major role in the prosecution,” said Pishoy Yacoub, a Bronx assistant district attorney. “The stills, one after the other, show the action like a cartoon flip book.”
There's more, and if you're a criminal defense lawyer or interested in the technology of metadata it's worth your time.  (And the photos and video embedded in the article are worth viewing regardless.)

But there are other stories here, too.  After all, there were bunches of cops on the scene.  At least six were in a scrum on top of Stolarik while he was on the ground.  Because he didn't put his camera away like a good boy when the police didn't want to be watched as they down a teenage girl. None of those cops tried to prevent the arrest.  None of them tried to get Ackerman to back off.  None of them insisted on telling a story that would conflict with Ackerman's. 

That's not one bad cop.  It's a bunch of them.  Even if only one got charged and convicted.

And there's another story.  Maybe more important.  After all, we know there are bad cops out there,and we know there are supposedly good cops who cover for the bad ones.  That's not news.  No longer man bites dog.  It's just another day.  Same old shit.

No, this last story is about fantasy.  It begins with what you know (if you've been paying attention) happens out on the streets.
“Nobody gets arrested for taking pictures because there is no such charge,” said Mickey Osterreicher, who is general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “Photography is not a crime, so the charges we normally see are disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, obstruction of governmental administration, loitering, trespassing and resisting arrest.”
Sure.  It happens to photographers with Press Cards stuck in their fedoras or whatever the 21st Century version of that might be.  And it happens to the folks who get too mouthy and end up attacking the officer's fist with their face.  Or who get shot for . . . .  Hell, you know the routine.

Osterrieicher, the Times says, "has educated police officers across the country on First and Fourth Amendment rights, and met with the former New York Police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly regarding arrests of journalists."  Which is cool.  And he says "that the city had good policies." Which might or might not be true and might or might not be something he'd actually agree with (since it was a Times report, not a quote from him).  What he actually says, per a quotation, is
If police officers don’t know or don’t care what those rights are, it’s not going to make any difference as we saw in this case, and, when push comes to shove, you’re going to get arrested.
Which the Times (and here's the story) paraphrases as him saying 
that training might be a problem.
Which is something altogether different, and belied by the story's final paragraph.
Indeed, on Thee Rant, a message board described as “New York City cops speaking their minds,” one commenter, dominop, responded to a post about Officer Ackermann’s conviction: “Lock up everyone in or connected with the press that you can, every chance you get! Know your enemy!”
Which pretty much makes clear what was evident from the beginning.  That the "problem" isn't about training.

No training's going to get the presumably pseudonymous "dominop" to decide that he's not at war with the press.  Nor is training going to get the cops who joined the scrum atop Stolarik and then covered Ackerman's lies to decide that they're supposed to be honest and act with integrity.

It's not that the police don't know they're not supposed to beat up/shoot/kill people who look crooked at them or don't jump high enough or fast enough on command.  It's not that police don't know they're not supposed to go along with each other and cover up misconduct by other cops.  Oh, sure, there's always room to train police in the nuance of the law.  

Osterreicher got it right.  It's a problem when police don't care about people's rights.  All the training in the world won't change that.  What changes that is aggressive accountability.  Which is pretty much non-existent.

And which the Grey Lady can't quite bring itself to acknowledge, even in a news story that closes with the proof (which I repeat here 'cause what the hell).
Indeed, on Thee Rant, a message board described as “New York City cops speaking their minds,” one commenter, dominop, responded to a post about Officer Ackermann’s conviction: “Lock up everyone in or connected with the press that you can, every chance you get! Know your enemy!”
It's that failure by the Times that's the real story.


  1. Working journalists at their best are watchdogs for the public--they have a very important role in the accountability of law enforcement. There are risks in doing that work which is a lesson from the 2012 Bronx incident. The photographer who was abused and arrested, Robert Stolarik, is known as a standout among NYC's photojournalists. This video taken in 2011 went viral, it shows Stolarik going about his job with great professionalism and exquisite determination:

    1. I have no complaint at all about Stolarik. He did, and kept doing, exactly what he was supposed to do and had an absolute right to do. And at personal cost (though, fortunately, far less personal cost than many others have paid for similarly doing their jobs).

      He's not the one who pretends that the problem is cops being inadequately trained.