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Your rights as a journo at a crime scene ...

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Rhody31, Sep 25, 2008.

  1. Rhody31

    Rhody31 Well-Known Member

    First, I'm not a news guy, so I don't know if I'm in the wrong or the cop was being a douche, but here goes:

    It's 1:30 a.m., I'm driving home from work, see a flurry of cop cars and ambos going somewhere; figure maybe a college party. I see them turn just ahead and when I get to the top of the hill, I see an overturned truck and a cop car pulling up to it.
    Journo brain starts working and since we're a weekly - with a deadline Thursday morning - I figure I should get pics for our news guy. I park my car away from the crime scene and see a flurry of cops nearby. I identify myself, then ask a cop if I can take some photos for our paper. He's says ok.
    I walk down there, ID myself for the cop inspecting the flipped over truck - no body, as I find out later, becasue the guy fled the scene - and never get closer than 50-75 feet. He says no. I explain I'm just looking for a picture, no story and our news people will call them tomorrow. He says OK. I get one shot. Our cameras suck - they're point and clicks - and can only take close range shots at night. It comes out blurry. I'm pissed.
    I walk around, take pics of guardrail truck flipped over, then figured I'd try again. ID myself and cop goes nuts on me. I explain I am not a photog and I need a shot in focus. He tells me to fuck off and I'm in a crime scene. I ask him where the crime scene is so I don';t stand in it. He tells me to go back to my car and get the fuck out of there. I tell him this is a public road and I can stand here and if he tells me the boundaries of the crime scene, I'll gladly stand there. He says I can go across the street. I tell him I can;t really shoot from there with my camera. He tells me I have two choices - turn around and go away or get arrested. I tell him he can't really arrested me - totally unsure of myself - and sick of him screaming at me, start going back to my car.
    I eventually get across the street and take photos; maybe 50 of them and I think one isn't blurry. Anyway, I think I got it for news.

    My question is, was I wrong? Could the cop arrest me? I wasn't interfering with the scene or officers or even interacting. I feel like he threw his badge in my face and expected me to STFU and leave, then got pissed when I didn't.
    What's the rule here?
  2. YES! you are interfering with a potential crime scene.

    they are in charge.

    even if you don't seem to be in the way, you are. they need to keep stuff cordoned off for a reason...so that there is zero, zilch chance of having a shred of evidence tainted.

    are there cops that go over the line? you bet. but for the most part, they just want to do their job properly. give them honey, they'll give you gold off the record.

    moral of the story: just fucking listen to them, or your ass will end up in the slammer -- and the bossmen will NOT bail you out.

    p.s. it's just an accident scene, bernstein. not super important stuff in the grand scheme of things. if you're gonna pick battles, be a little smarter in picking 'em.
  3. DanOregon

    DanOregon Well-Known Member

    Technically, you have no more rights than anyone else. But if you talk to enough cops, explain that you don't want to be in the way and are able to get to a guy with some stripes on his sleeves they'll be cool. The younger cops are worried about letting someone in and getting yelled at by a superior.
  4. franticscribe

    franticscribe Well-Known Member


    First off, you probably could have been arrested for "disobeying a lawful order" -- or whatever comparable charge your state has. When reporters and photogs get arrested at crime scenes, the charge is typically something of that nature. It isn't likely to stick unless you were really being a problem, but you can still get a few hours at the jail. They don't need a lot to arrest you on it. Standing in a crime scene (even if its arguable whether you were actually in the crime scene) and arguing can be enough. Most cops won't do it because they know it's a bullshit charge and arresting a reporter is going to bring unwanted attention on the cop himself. Some don't care though and others think they're teaching that reporter a lesson.

    I've been in that situation hundreds of times, come close to arrest a few and even once had a deputy shove a shotgun in my chest when I walked into a crime scene (I had arrived before the cops and even though they knew me, this particularly one, upon arriving, took the opportunity to be a jackass.)

    Anyway, at crime scenes you do have a right of access if it's on/near public property. The cops also have a right to control the scene and can set up a reasonable perimeter, which you are to stay out of. Sometimes they set up crime scene tape and that creates a clear delineation line. They don't typically do that -- because it's really not necessary -- for non-fatal car accidents, like what you described, though. They just ask you to stand back, stand over there, go fuck off, etc. You need to obey them and argue it with command staff later if it's unreasonable. The only time when I say you don't obey them is when they tell you that you have to leave outright, or they tell you that you have to stand farther away than the onlookers who've come out.

    You did a couple of things right and a couple of things wrong.

    What you did right: Identified yourself as soon as you got on the scene and it sounds like you stayed respectful through a tough situation.

    What you did wrong: If I got it right, you asked permission three times, of at least two, maybe three different cops. Once should be enough -- maybe twice if you've got to get past the cop on traffic/guard duty and then again the primary investigator or incident commander. Maybe. It also sounds like you were indecisive (easy to do if you're not used to those situations.) Once you've got the OK, get what you need as fast as you can so that when the tyrant with the gun decides you need to go stand 10-feet farther away, you're OK.

    Also, you shouldn't really "ask permission" more so than just let them know who you are and what you're doing, if that makes sense. There's a difference between saying "I'm Johnny Reporter from the Daily Bumfuck and I'm here to take pictures" and saying "I'm Johnny Reporter, do you mind if I take some pictures?" If you give 'em a chance to tell you "no" that's what they'll tell you.

    And as someone else pointed out -- sounds like it may not have been that newsworthy to begin with. As soon as you figure out that something isn't worth being there for, take off. No point in you getting your hackles up, or the cops getting their hackles up, over something that may not make the paper anyway.

    A couple of resources:

    Criminal Justice Reporters guide, access section:

    Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press field guide, public places section:
  5. Rhody31

    Rhody31 Well-Known Member

    I figured I could be arrested but nothing that would stick.

    And I would argue the newsworthiness of it; we're a small college town and the biggest thing the cops do is usually break up college parties. A totaled stolen truck where the guy who did it fled is going on our front page ...

    As much fun as it was, I'm gonna stick to sports.
  6. franticscribe

    franticscribe Well-Known Member

    I hear ya on the newsworthiness Rhody.

    Stolen truck, along with fleeing driver makes it more interesting. And I once worked at a paper that had a long tradition of putting a car wreck on the cover of every edition. No matter how small. I know it can be big news in some towns and for some papers.
  7. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    A car wreck on the cover of last sunday' paper at my shop. A photo with one of the bodies was nixed, though.
  8. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    In general, cops can be dicks. It's easiest for them to say no.

    Frantic had some good points. In this situation and others, where you really may not belong, it's always best to act like you do. If you act like you aren't sure, you'll get the boot every time.
  9. Yeah, having a better camera would have been a big help. If you're just across the street, that should have provided enough opportunity to get a decent shot. And when you're at the scenes, as someone said above, don't just ask the first cop you see. Ask for the sergeant in charge or commanding officer. If they give you the OK, tell the asshole cop that's who he can take it up with.
  10. TheMethod

    TheMethod Member

    A wily old veteran once told me to never ask permission for anything. Just do it, quickly, until someone tells you to stop. Worst that can happen is someone yells at you.
  11. Baron Scicluna

    Baron Scicluna Well-Known Member

    Also don't forget, the cops are human, too, even though it may not seem like it. They may be veterans of car accident scenes, but they are still under a lot of stress in dealing with it.
  12. SixToe

    SixToe Active Member

    Cops aren't necessarily dicks all the time.

    You were in a crime scene. It may be 20 feet in diameter or 200 feet or even larger. Everything at that immediate moment is stressful, in question and critical.

    If a cop fucks up an investigation because a reporter stepped on a piece of evidence lying in the grass or even accidentally kicked something in a road, his ass is in trouble. Not yours. They are only working how they are trained even if it is a public road.

    The "failing to obey an unlawful order" suggestion is valid because he gave you an order, even after your request for boundaries. Cross the road or leave. As much as I respect journalism and getting the job done to the best of our capabilities, the cop doesn't care and is doing his job without any regard to whether we need a photo or want to see the decapitated head lying in the back seat.

    When I was a cub I covered a shooting on a county road. Guy unloaded on a cop with some kind of semiauto and the cop responded with his own gun. Ammo casings were strewn about, some of them circled with yellow paint, and swarms of police were looking for anything.

    I was shooting photos and a veteran cop undressed me so thoroughly by yelling "Press! Get the hell OUT of MY crime scene now!" that I almost shit my pants. I talked later with some cops I knew in town and they said a crime scene is like an untouchable puzzle.

    The caveat is if you ask nicely or explain what you're doing, you may get some access. Good photographers know cops and medical personnel the way we know locker room sources.
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