What happens when you mix a First Amendmentquoting photographer on a deadline, a hotheaded cop, an armed federal agent, and a lot of chest-thumping? You get trouble, right here in the Venice of America.
This scenario will be familiar to the dozen or so loyal Undercurrents readers. We're speaking, of course, about New Times photog Joshua Prezant and his August 11 run-in with officer Anthony Castro, one of Fort Lauderdale's finest (who, by the way, didn't return calls seeking comment).
In August Undercurrents called for an investigation of the altercation between Prezant and Castro. It didn't happen. After four months and $10,000-plus in legal fees, New Times and Prezant recently reached an agreement with the city: We won't sue, and officials will drop the misdemeanor charges against Prezant -- which goes to show that press freedom isn't free.
A brief recap: Prezant, a freelancer, accepted an assignment to shoot pictures of a federal employee and the Fort Lauderdale building where the employee worked for a story on problems at a Social Security office ("Social Insecurity," Roger Williams, August 17). Prezant was standing in a parking lot near the building when an armed Federal Protective Service (FPS) officer showed up and told him to stop taking pictures. Prezant pointed out that he was breaking no law but affably agreed to work from a public sidewalk. Then Castro showed up, interrogated Prezant, and insisted he stop photographing. Prezant insisted he was within his rights and added that he didn't like the way Castro was treating him. So he requested Castro's badge number or business card. Castro refused, and Prezant took his picture in order to identify the cop later.
That's when it got ugly. Prezant says Castro became so angry that the officer took a swing, hitting the photographer in the face and knocking his Canon out of his hand. (Luckily he had it on a strap.) Then he arrested Prezant for "trespass after warning." Later he slapped on a disorderly-conduct charge.
New Times hired some big legal guns, including John Hogan, former chief of staff to Janet Reno. After some negotiation, Prezant signed away his right to sue in November, "because it isn't about money. I want Castro off the street." Now the bold shooter will pursue justice through the police department's Internal Affairs Division, where he recently filed a complaint against Castro.
Indeed Prezant isn't the first person to kvetch about Castro. In 1991 the cop made the Sun-Sentinel's list of most-criticized Fort Lauderdale cops -- at the time there had been ten complaints filed against him, three sustained by Internal Affairs. And he was arrested on New Year's Eve 1998 after neighbors in his Loxahatchee neighborhood told Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies Castro had threatened them, then drove his car into the night and allegedly fired his gun. Castro was acquitted of aggravated assault and illegally pulling the trigger within city limits.
An Internal Affairs sergeant told Prezant it may take six months or more to get a ruling on his complaint. Lucky he's patient.
Undercurrents frequently thanks the journalism gods that we aren't employed at the once-mighty Herald. Not only would we be penning sleepy, banal dispatches adhering to some misbegotten notion of "objectivity," we'd also be constantly worried about getting sacked, no matter how well we toed the line.
Case in point: a Broward County newsroom employee of The Herald who asked to remain anonymous. Let's call him "Lucky."
After seven years of loyal service in Broward, Lucky was summoned to an editor's office two weeks before Christmas and given his walking papers. This joyous news came less than two weeks after Lucky had been informed he was being bumped up from part-time to full-time.
Days later Lucky was called to a meeting with human resources and learned that he would be getting a "separation package." Lucky wouldn't say how sweet the deal is but admits it was enough to tide him over for at least three months.
Lucky reports the human resources dweeb told him 35 other heads had rolled because the paper wasn't making enough money. Although The Miami Herald makes buckets of the stuff, parent company Knight-Ridder deems the number of buckets insufficient. The paper is under a mandate to increase profit margins from 18 percent in 1998 to 22 percent or more this year.
Robin Reiter, The Miami Herald's vice president of human resources, disputes the 36-head figure. "It's more like 28 or 30," she says, and only 8 or so are in the newsroom. But she isn't quite sure, because she called Undercurrents while on vacation and didn't have the figures in front of her. She also says the bottom line isn't the whole story. "Because of some new technology and some advancements, we are taking advantage of economies of scale. The difficulty of doing this is that some jobs will be eliminated."
Says Lucky: "There was no consideration of the human impact. It's been a bad month."
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