Monitoring of police activities in public spaces by the media and the public has become an essential part of holding police departments accountable. Numerous cases of brutality and inappropriate action have been brought to light in recent years through the presence of journalists and members of the public, armed with cameras and exercising their First Amendment rights.
So DWT was pleased to join with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in filing a lawsuit on behalf of Philip Datz, a professional video jour-nalist who was unlawfully arrested and detained in July 2011 while filming police activity on a public street in Bohemia, Long Island.
Datz was filming the aftermath of a police chase when a Suffolk County police sergeant demanded he leave the scene. Though Datz prominently displayed his press credentials, was standing in a location open to the public, and did not interfere with the police in any manner, he was handcuffed, taken into custody, and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration. Following his release, and the return of his equipment and tape, Datz posted video of the encounter on YouTube, which was widely viewed.
The suit, filed in 2012, recently produced an important settlement. The Suffolk County Police Department agreed to annually train and test all police officers on the First Amendment right of the public and the media to observe, photograph, and record police activity in public locations. The County also changed its written policies to explicitly recognize the constitutional right of the public and press to record police scenes, agreed to establish a Police-Media Relations Committee and agreed to pay Datz $200,000.
Rob Balin, a partner in DWT’s media law practice, and lead attorney on the Datz case, said it was important that the settlement be made public—and indeed it was broadly covered in the media. He said that Suffolk County, like many other jurisdictions in the U.S., has had a pervasive police culture of officers violating First and Fourth amendment rights with bogus arrests.
The Datz lawsuit included descriptions of numerous other incidents of police ordering him from public roadways as he tried to cover house fires and other routine news. In some cases, Datz alleged, police expanded crime scenes to prevent him and other members of the press from observing officers at work in public.
“I am hopeful that this case will resonate beyond Suffolk County and cause a number of police departments around the country to look at their own policies,” Balin said. “We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with our partners, the NYCLU and the NPPA, on this important action.”
Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the NPPA, said his organization was “extremely appreciative of the tenacious advocacy by Rob Balin [and DWT associates] Alison Schary and Sam Bayard, who worked tirelessly on Phil’s behalf. And our thanks go to Phil Datz for his willingness to stand up for his rights and the rights of others.”