On July 30, 2011, members of the Suffolk County Police Department were chasing two men, Ramon Rivera, 24, and Camilo Tatis, 33, around the tiny Long Island town of Bohemia. The men were eventually caught by police on Sycamore Street, and arrested on a variety of drug charges. Meanwhile, a press photographer and video journalist named Philip Datz showed up and started filming the aftermath of the chase. What happened next became the subject of a lengthy lawsuit, and, as the New York Civil Liberties Union announced today, a hefty settlement for the cameraman.
Datz worked for Stringer News Service, which sells breaking news footage to other media outlets. He had his press credentials displayed and he was standing on a public sidewalk. And even if Datz hadn’t been a reporter, it’s still absolutely legal to film or photograph the police in public spaces, provided you’re not interfering with police activities.
Datz wasn’t. Just moments after he began filming, though, a sergeant with Suffolk County’s Fifth Precinct crossed the street towards him, yelling “Go away!”
As the sergeant — who has not been publicly identified — continued shouting “Go away now!” Datz replied, “Where should I go?”
“Just go away,” the sergeant replied. “I don’t care where you go. Just go away. Go away… I want you to go away and not stand here and argue with me. Otherwise you’re about to get locked up.”
As Datz proceeded to his car, he told the sergeant he was calling Suffolk County PD’s public information office.
“Call the commissioner, for all I care,” the sergeant responded. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. There’s nothing you can hold over my head or anybody out there. Go away.”
Datz did call the public information office, who told him he could film from a block away. He continued doing that, until the same angry mustachioed sergeant pulled up in his cruiser, made Datz put his camera down and arrested him. We know about this series of events because Datz captured video of the entire incident, right until the moment of his arrest:
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Datz was charged with obstruction of governmental administration, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in prison. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the charge was dropped that August, and a subsequent investigation by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau found that the sergeant “made a false arrest and violated Department rules and procedures.”
And so in 2012 Datz sued for false arrest, with backing from the NYCLU and the National Press Photographers Association. Today, the NYCLU announced that Suffolk County has settled the suit, agreeing to pay Datz $200,000. They’ll also create a Police-Media Relations Committee to address any problems that might arise between the press and the police. In addition, the NYCLU adds, the department will “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.”
We even have the video that Suffolk County’s police will be shown. Officers are reminded to “always conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner,” and not to expand police perimeters solely to keep out the press.