Intimidation puts police in a bad light

Winnipeg Free Press | December 14, 2007

SOMEBODY at the Winnipeg Police Service has some explaining to do. 

Two days ago, a CBC cameraman was arrested by a police officer at the scene of a standoff in West Kildonan. As police surrounded a home believed to be occupied by an armed man, an officer warned the cameraman to back up. According to CBC accounts, the cameraman agreed to move back but continued recording. And that's where the whole mess started.

The cameraman did what any good journalist would do and continued to record the scene. For continuing to do his job and exercising his right as a journalist, he ended up in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser. The camera and the tape inside were confiscated, and the cameraman has been charged with obstructing police. The camera was returned but not the tape.

The police said yesterday they arrested the cameraman because they needed to keep bystanders a safe distance from the house. That sounds reasonable, but it doesn't explain why the camera and tape were confiscated, or why the police would try to stop a journalist from recording the events unfolding in plain view.

The cameraman did nothing wrong. The media is legally entitled to record events unfolding in a public setting, and any rookie cop should know that. Whether it was quick judgment call or just a misunderstanding that got out of hand, it ends up as blatant intimidation of the media -- and it's been going on in this town for far too long.

It may come as little surprise that the police are generally not fond of the media and, conversely, the media aren't that fond of the police either. Police see the media as presumptuous, overly critical and often inaccurate. The media often find police to be hostile, unco-operative and intimidating.

There is some truth in both assessments. In this incident, however, we can see how the mutual distrust does not always produce a balanced relationship. That's because one has the power to arrest the other, and take away the tools of their trade.

And while some may dismiss this conflict as a petty sideshow, this kind of intimidation has serious implications for the public and its right to an accountable justice system.

Technology has turned everyone with a mobile phone, digital camera and laptop into "citizen journalists." Remember the Taser death of a Polish man in the Vancouver airport? A bystander with a digital camera produced the definitive images that revealed inconsistencies in the police account of the incident. What would have happened if the police kept the images from the public? We would never have known what happened.

Journalists should expect to, on occasion, defer to the interests of law and order. Journalists have a responsibility to tell police if they think someone is going to commit a crime. It is also frowned upon to harbour a fugitive, or to intervene in a crime scene.

Journalist have also withheld information because they have been asked to do so by police, or because they know it would put someone's life or an investigation at risk.

Too often, however, these concessions fail to curry any respect.

Part of the background to this drama is that the Free Press, after hearing about the standoff on a police scanner, contacted the police. We were told the incident was over and as a result, did not send a reporter.

However, it turned out the incident stretched on for several more hours. No one expected the police to give us a full accounting of who was in the house and why police had surrounded him. But deceiving the media isn't policy at the Winnipeg Police Service?

Most journalists get plenty of exposure to police. Most of us know that police officers are overworked, underpaid and often unfairly maligned. And the majority of crime stories that appear in the Free Press portray the police as competent, and even heroic.

But one story can undo all of that. Police seem to be the only arm of government that launches into a tantrum when criticized. It would be almost impossible for elected officials or bureaucrats to earn job security by intimidating and misinforming the media the way law enforcement does.

We both have jobs to do, but the police ask us to respect what they do without offering similar respect.

New Police Chief Keith McCaskill has an obligation to explain why the CBC journalist was prevented from doing his job in a public setting.

It's the right thing to do for a number of reasons. First, because the public's right to know is in jeopardy.

And second, because it's been a problem in Winnipeg for far too long.