A freelance videographer arrested last year after a New York police sergeant ordered him to stop taping the arrest of a suspect filed a civil rights lawsuit Wednesday, claiming the Suffolk County police department engaged in a pattern of harassing journalists.
Philip Datz, who works for Stringer News Service, which sells video to television stations and other news outlets, claimed in his federal lawsuit that his arrest in July was another instance in which the county obstructed him from doing his job.
The New York Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on Datz's behalf in U.S. District Court in Central Islip. The complaint cites other occasions in which Datz says he was prevented from videotaping during the course of his work.
"Suffolk County police officers have a pattern of unlawfully interfering with the recording of police activity conducted in plain view," said Robert Balin, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine and lead counsel in the case. "As a journalist, Mr. Datz has a responsibility to cover police activity in public places."
A police spokeswoman said when asked about the lawsuit that the department does not comment on pending litigation. The department issued a statement later Wednesday saying its policy is "to maintain a strong spirit of cooperation and openness with the media and the public." It said all personnel are trained to be professional and courteous with the media.
"Public access equals media access," the statement said.
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said police interference with journalists or others taking photos in a public place is common around the country.
"It seems photographers are being interfered with and arrested almost on a daily basis," he said. "And it's not just news photographers _ anyone with a cellphone camera or anyone recording images is subject to possible arrest."
Datz was arrested in Bohemia on Long Island. He claimed he was wearing press credentials and was filming police activity from a sidewalk where bystanders were also watching. He said that when Sgt. Michael Milton saw him, the officer ordered him to stop shooting and to leave. Datz claimed that none of the bystanders were told to leave.
Datz moved about a block away and resumed shooting, but Milton pursued him and had him taken into custody, Datz said in the suit. He was given an appearance ticket for obstructing governmental administration. The district attorney's office later dropped an obstruction charge against him.
The lawsuit claims Suffolk County "gives officers excessive discretion to prevent such recording," lacks adequate training for officers in dealing with the media, and does not sufficiently discipline officers who obstruct journalists doing their jobs.
A video of the encounter that appeared on the Internet showed Datz suggesting that the officer call the department for advice on where Datz could stand. Milton is heard replying: "You can call and talk to the commissioner for all I care. You're going away ... I've been doing this for 30 years. There is nothing you can hold over my head or anybody out there."
Following the much publicized arrest, an instructor from the FBI Academy in Virginia visited Suffolk County for several days, offering training on interacting with the media.