Lawyers for the National Press Photographers Association have asked the NYPD’s top spokesman to return $18,000 worth of cameras and press credentials seized from a New York Times freelance photographer who was body slammed by police in the Bronx on Saturday night and arrested under spurious charges.
While covering a story for the Times, Robert Stolarik sustained the injuries when 44th Precinct police officers pushed him, knocked him down, dragged him along a sidewalk and kicked him before cuffing him and charging him with resisting arrest and obstructing them. He was on a public sidewalk at the time, and therefore perfectly within his rights to photograph.
Stolarik, who has been working freelance for the Times for 12 years, says he was simply photographing the arrest of a 16-year-old and a female officer ordered him to move back and then pushed him. He says there were officers on either side of him, and the street was behind him, so he didn’t have room to move. Police smashed his camera into his face. He demanded their names and shield numbers. It was then, when he was body slammed.
“A lot of officers took me down and dragged me; I don’t have any internal injuries or broken bones, but it feels like I did,” the former war correspondent tells the Voice. “I can’t even believe they have any justification for what they did. There’s no justification. I was treated with more respect in the worst places than I was in this situation. It’s unbelievable to fear for your life in your own city.”
Stolarik spent hours in the precinct and was set to be processed through the system, but he eventually received a desk appearance ticket and was released.
The NYPD responded by claiming that Stolarik was the aggressor, saying to the Times that officers gave “numerous lawful orders” to disperse a crowd, but he pushed forward “inadvertently striking an officer in the face with a camera.” They say he then “violently resisted being handcuffed.”
Reality check here: Why would a professional photographer use a $9,000 camera to strike an officer when he was risking endangering his safety and livelihood? That makes no sense.
Thus far, the NYPD has refused to return the cameras or the credentials. In addition, Kim Royster, an aide to Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, told Stolarik’s lawyer that her office won’t investigate the incident until after his court date in November. The effect of that curious decision is to withhold his cameras for three months, rendering him unable to work, and meaning that these phony charges will hang over his head.
In his letter to Browne, NPPA lawyer, Mickey Osterreicher said Stolarik’s civil rights were violated. He noted he has objected to a number of similar incidents of police interfering within the press over the past year, but Browne has not responded to those concerns.
“It is a travesty that officers still do not understand or respect that ‘the public’s access to information regarding the official business of the Department is of critical importance to effective City government,’ Osterreicher wrote.
An advocacy group, Communities United for Police Reform, said the incident shows a need for more oversight of the police. “It’s hard not to notice this unfortunate pattern after several documented incidents of the inappropriate handling of media and everyday New Yorkers,” the group’s statement said. “Unfortunately, the mayor and police commissioner have set a tone that the department is above the law and not accountable to New Yorkers.”
We emailed the NYPD on this but did not receive a response.