It was just eleven days after Princess Diana tragically died while fleeing the paparazzi in Paris that news photographer Brent Strange found himself alone in a jail cell at the Coral Springs Police Department. He believes the two events, occurring on separate continents, are connected.
The 41-year-old veteran TV news photographer claims he was arrested at the site of a plane crash by a Coral Springs police officer so affected by Diana's death that she likened Strange to the paparazzi "media scum," described his raison d'etre as exploitive, and warned him that she would not let this crash turn into another Diana episode. She also ordered Strange to put his camera down and leave the area. If he refused, she warned him, he would be arrested.
He refused, and he was.
Coral Springs Police Officer Charlene Caffray charged Strange that Thursday morning with failure to aid a police officer and resisting arrest. Caffray did not return phone calls for this article. She testified in court, however, that she did not recall if she dubbed Strange "media scum" before demanding that he put his camera down.
While police must stress safety and security concerns at the site of a crime or an accident, it runs counter to the constitutionally protected concept of a free press when they order photojournalists to stop recording images of an incident, notes Mark Eissman, the Chicago-based counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, a trade organization for photojournalists. "When I hear police officers saying you shouldn't be taping, that's a red flag," he contends. "It shows a lack of objectivity. Instead of doing their job, which is letting him [the photojournalist] get the best shot possible, they are substituting their editorial judgment as to what is appropriate to be shot and what is not."
This particular dispute culminated for Strange in a misdemeanor criminal conviction for resisting arrest without violence, resulting in a $200 fine and 25 hours of community service.
When he first arrived at the scene of the accident, on Creekside Drive in Coral Springs about one hundred yards west of U.S. 441, Strange saw that a single-engine airplane was wholly submerged in a nearby pond. Pilot John Kelly and his dog were trapped inside the plane (both later died) and a passenger, Joseph Mancine, had escaped and swum to safety. Strange needed to tape the rescue operation for the noon news broadcast of WPEC-TV (Channel 12), a West Palm Beach-based station.
According to Caffray's police report, Strange walked toward an emergency vehicle with the intention of videotaping the victim as he was placed in the truck. Caffray asked him several times to leave.
Although she never gave Strange a reason for her directive, Caffray's police report states that Strange "hindered my assistance in aiding my fellow officers and the rescue of the plane-crash victims." For that rather vague reason, he supposedly needed not only to leave but to turn his camera around and cease taping. Police department spokesperson Sgt. Jeff Maslan denies trying to censor the taping. In fact, he says, when Strange was asked to leave, he was attempting to videotape from a spot deemed essential to the police investigation of the crash.
If this is true, there is little indication of it in either a videotaped account of the events or the police reports. And Strange never refused Caffray's order outright. The report suggests instead that he dawdled off, camera in hand, rather than leaving the site immediately as she evidently expected. Annoyed that he did not jump to her command, Strange testified at his trial that she informed him that "media scum" would not be allowed to exploit this accident. Upon hearing that, he immediately turned on his camera, revealing the following sequence of events:
"Say that -- ," he says awkwardly, fumbling to get his camera up and running. "Say that again."
But she didn't. Instead Caffray called for assistance on her radio, telling the officer on the other end that she had "a problem with the media."
"What's your problem?" Strange asked her.
"Because," she replied, "you won't turn around, and you're taping."
Recorded video shots include quick cuts of Caffray, the ground, an ambulance, a sideways glance at the rescue effort, and a shot of another police officer standing in front of the ambulance as if she were guarding it.
"I want to see some ID," commanded another officer, James Brinton. "Put your camera down right now, I want to see some ID."
"I just want to get a shot," Strange told him.
"I don't care," Brinton retorted. "Did you hear what I said? I said put your camera down, I want to get some ID, sir. Right now."
"I just want to do my job," Strange protested.
"Put your hands up," Caffray ordered. "You're under arrest."
As police grabbed for one of his hands, the camera spun out of control. Strange wrestled with the police officers, according to Caffray, and refused to let go of his camera to be handcuffed.
"The novelty of it," Strange recalls now with incredulity, "was like, I've never been arrested before, and here I am going to jail for something I didn't do, for something I legally thought I could do, and it was like, this is B.S." The only person in the city slammer, Strange struggled to amuse himself for several hours until he posted bond. He sang; he dozed; he got bored. "I thought, this is interesting. It's kind of like 'Mayberry R.F.D.'"
Not quite. The sheriff of that small North Carolina TV-land town never had to deal with cocky TV news photographers and the tension between reporters' First Amendment rights to gather information and the police's need to protect an accident site for investigation.
WPEC's general manager, Bill Peterson, said the station tells reporters and news photographers to follow police orders that are deemed lawful. "Police work is difficult work and so is being a news photographer," he points out, "and the rules seem to be very flexible and change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction." Other news media evidently agree. Peterson says local media colleagues have offered to lend legal support to Strange's planned appeal. He declined to name them.
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In the Coral Springs jurisdiction -- one that was relatively new to Strange professionally -- the rules were not clearly expressed. At least not to Strange. As far as he was concerned, no lawful order was ever made. At no time, according to the video or Caffray's police report, did a police officer explain that he was impeding an investigation or rescue effort. The police just told him to turn off the camera. Eissman suggests that Strange might have asked to speak with the officers' superiors or tried to negotiate a more acceptable position to film.
"The whole time it was happening," Strange explains, "I guess I didn't really believe it. Even when they put the handcuffs on, it was like 'OK, I guess they're going to put handcuffs on me and take my camera and slap my wrist.'"
He got a criminal record instead.
Robert Rivas, the Boca Raton attorney who represents WPEC, said he intends to sue the City of Coral Springs following the appeal. He believes the police wanted to control what Strange videotaped and had no legitimate concern that he was impeding the rescue effort or the investigation of the plane crash. Indeed, Caffray's report states, "I allowed defendant to make a phone call for bond. In doing so defendant telephoned his work and advised them that he had everything that happened on tape, only to confirm my belief that defendant continued taping."
Her belief, of course, was well founded.
"I'm not saying I'm an expert [on the law]," Strange maintains, "but I do know what my rights are, and if I see my rights are being violated, I'm not going to be passive.