Pictures of Photog’s Arrest Force Police Accountability

The arrest of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff (©Lita Medinger)

Once again, police officers have arrested a photographer doing her job–this time in Milwaukee–only to let her go a few hours later without charges. The summary round-up of journalists at street demonstrations is a form of intimidation, and rough injustice: It’s a convenient way of putting journalists out of commission for the duration of a police action. But with cameras so ubiquitous now, it’s ultimately a losing strategy for police.

In Milwaukee, Journal Sentinel photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff was arrested last Wednesday while photographing a peaceful Occupy demonstration. Just before she arrived on the scene, police had ordered protestors to leave the street. Police had blocked the street with their cars, and started making arrests. Wentz-Graff started taking pictures of an arrest as soon as she arrived.

According to the Journal Sentinel, “While she was taking pictures, she was grabbed by an officer, handcuffed and arrested, without warning or without being told why she was being arrested.”

Under criticism for violating the First Amendment rights of a journalist, the Milwaukee police chief held a news conference Thursday to defend his officers. He said the arresting officer thought the photographer was a protester and added that her status as a journalist “was not obvious to the officers” at the scene.

But looking at the pictures taken by others of the arrest, one has to wonder: Do Milwaukee police officers need to get their eyes checked? Wentz-Graff had her press ID badge clearly visible, as an image by Lita Medinger in the Journal Sentinel shows, and two cameras around her neck–one of them with a very large Canon telephoto lens that screamed “journalist.”(That camera and lens are hidden behind the police car in the Journal Sentinel image, but were clearly visible in this  TV video of the arrest.)

The mayor, after watching a TV video of the arrest, said to the Journal Sentinel, “It appeared very clear to me that she was a photojournalist.” He added, “I very much support her First Amendment right to be there.”

The police chief acknowledged that Wentz-Graff had “big fancy cameras,” but protestors carry cameras, too, he noted. And he added, “According to the officer at the scene, he didn’t notice her ID. He was just focusing on the task at hand. He perceived her as part of the problem he had to solve.”

Fair enough. But with his boss in the hot seat, the arresting officer has probably been advised to pay more attention to what he’s doing.

More importantly, though, Milwaukee’s police chief has pledged to try to make things right with the media. He says he’s going to meet with editors of various Milwaukee news outlets to examine police policy, and “identify those circumstances in which the perception is we are not playing fair with the press and let’s correct it.”

It’s hard not to imagine that all the pictures of the incident had a lot to do with an outcome that’s so good for the First Amendment, and for democracy. It’s not too much of a leap to argue that the whole Occupy movement has been at least partially protected by a force field of cameras. A few incidents of police brutality have resulted in more support for the movement, and widespread condemnation of the police departments involved (in New York City and Oakland, California.)

The police certainly do a tough, important job protecting us from crime, but to avoid accountability by arresting photojournalists, they’re going to have to arrest pretty much every bystander with a cell phone.

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