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.

13 Responses to “Pictures of Photog’s Arrest Force Police Accountability”

  1. Troy Freund Says:

    Thanks for picking up this story. As a Milwaukee photographer, this instance was pretty upsetting and the police’s action seemed pretty out of line. It is good that it’s resulting in a dialog with the PD and local publications.

  2. Tammy Says:

    I didn’t realize you had to have a press pass and about $5K in professional gear to retain 1st amendment rights…

  3. Caleb Says:

    A bit more than 5K…

  4. Occupy Milwaukee – We are the 99% » Cool Occupy Milwaukee images Says:

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  5. Geo Says:

    It’s important to keep this upfront and in the public.
    The police have a tough job but there are always those who “go-overboard” in thier actions.
    Also it seems that the police brass want this to happen at times to get the public eye off their actions.

  6. Dan Says:

    At best, it seems like a willful lack of curiosity or outright negligence for the police to start to arrest someone with two professional cameras on her and in use and to not consider that she might be a journalist. Of course, they may have been quite well aware that she was probably a journalist and therefore this was a good example of abuse of power and authority. The fact that she was released without charges demonstrates that the police wrongly arrested her.

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  8. Marc | Art Photography Says:

    Well, I don’t know if police needs a medical check to see the obvious or maybe a change of they own guideline. Anyway, the picture talks be itself…. I never shoot that by a photographer could be dangerous, at least not in this kind of situation…

  9. Mitch Says:

    The current administration is cracking down on our first amendment rights at an alarming rate. We will all be living in a police state if things continue at this pace.

  10. Pam I Says:

    Press photographers need to be careful not to separate themselves off from the rest of the public. No-one should be arrested for taking photos, whether for press use or for their own record. In part because most pro’s start off as amateurs and learn the craft by doing it, but also because all photographers need to defend this right, whether they get paid for it or not.

    The police must be getting sick of becoming celebrities. Watch out for new skills developing in small off-camera ways of causing distress…

  11. Scott Says:

    the more photographers are arrested, the more photographs and videos will be taken

  12. dbltapp Says:

    This will continue until there are negative consequences for the cops who violate our rights.

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