The same week that a video showed a Chicago police officer choking a young man on St. Patrick’s Day, this video shows police arresting reporters outside of a hospital without apparent justification. The video shows Photographer Donte Williams and WGN Reporter Dan Ponce complying with orders and seeking to work out the disagreement on their presence at the scene. The officer proclaims “Your First Amendment rights can be terminated if you’re creating a scene or whatever.” This appears to be the “whatever” category.
The media was present to cover the story of a 6-year-old girl who was shot and killed. The media was on the public sidewalk and the hospital called police to report trespass. At the request of the police, the crew moved to a median in street. However, Chicago police say that hospital security guards reported that reporters tried to get past them into a secure area of the hospital — something the reporters deny. NBC Chicago Reporter Christian Farr reported that they merely went up to the door and never spoke to the security officers or tried to enter.
After being detained, Williams and Ponce were held for about 10 minutes. When the reporters noted that they had done nothing to “create a scene,” the officer responded “Your presence is creating a scene.” Thus, Chicago police do not have to turn to the “whatever” offense in the criminal code because by merely showing up at a scene, press create a scene and may be arrested. Of course, the Chicago police department is not saying that reporters cannot cover news. They simply have to do so by not being present. Simple.
Here is the statements from the CPS:
“The Chicago Police Department did not charge anyone with criminal trespass in connection with yesterday’s incident, which involved the unfortunate and senseless loss of a young child. We removed two individuals from the hospital at the request of hospital security guards, who asserted that the individuals had tried to go past them into secure and private areas of the hospital. The security guards declined to press charges and the individuals were released.
Our members were attempting to protect and respect both the grieving family members of the child, and the memory of the child herself during a very stressful time for all parties involved.
As always, we will carefully review the allegations in the event further action is warranted.”
From the video, it appears that the officer is just waiting for anyone to press charges and proceeds to place the reporters in custody — not for trespass but failure to obey an order. Moreover, an officer is not supposed to make an arrest simply because someone makes an allegation. That is particularly the case when the case involves members of the media carrying out their protected functions under the first amendment. Notably, I would assume that the front door of the hospital is under video surveillance. Either the guards or the reporter is lying and that can be determined from such a record.
In the end, it is not the alleged trespass but the conduct of the officer that is disturbing. The officer appears rude and hostile. The fact that the reporters were later released does not negate the abusive action. The video shows that the reporters had moved at a distance as requested. “Terminating” first amendment requires a far sight more than a finding of “whatever.”