The New York Police Department's commissioner on Wednesday sent an internal message to officers ordering them not to unreasonably interfere with media access during news coverage and warning those who do will be subject to disciplinary action, after several journalists were arrested covering Occupy Wall Street demonstrations last week.
The message by Commissioner Raymond Kelly was being read at police precincts citywide.
A reporter and a photographer with The Associated Press were among those arrested while on private property covering a rally by protesters Nov. 15 in Manhattan. Police made the arrests after the demonstrators clipped a chain-link fence and entered a vacant lot owned by a nearby church.
The police department message notes that officers should not restrict media access on private property "to the extent it is feasible to do so."
"When incidents spill over or occur on private property, members of the media will not be arrested for criminal trespass, unless an owner or representative expressly indicates that the press is not to be permitted," according to the section of the Patrol Guide sent to officers.
A coalition of media outlets, including the AP, sent police a letter protesting the treatment after at least half a dozen journalists were arrested. The media also argued police wrongly blocked reporters from seeing when authorities cleared out the Occupy camp in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. The letter suggested the police roughed up some journalists.
"The police actions ... have been more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory," read the media letter to the police department.
Wednesday's internal message to the nation's largest police department, which has about 35,000 officers, was welcomed by members of the press.
"This is a welcome step to assure that journalists can do their jobs," said Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor for the AP. "If followed, these instructions should prevent a recurrence of at least some of the unfortunate interference that journalists experienced as they covered the Occupy Wall Street events last week."
The arrested AP reporter, Karen Matthews, and photographer, Seth Wenig, were released a few hours after they were detained, and their arrests were voided.
The police commissioner's letter makes clear that journalists are entitled to cross police and fire lines, unless it is unsafe or a live crime scene, and officers have a duty to provide access and information to the extent they can.
"Supervisors may restrict access to an incident scene only in those exceptional circumstances where it is absolutely necessary for law enforcement or public order purposes," Kelly's message says.
A copy of the letter was provided to the AP. The AP and representatives of The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post and the National Press Photographers Association met with Kelly and chief police spokesman Paul Browne on Wednesday at the request of the media outlets.
The Patrol Guide sections on dealing with the press "reflect the commitment of the Department to upholding the principles of a free press and informed citizenry," the police letter says.