We give the police so much power over our persons and property that a rigorous examination of their actions seems necessary. The news media has played an important role in this scrutiny of abuses and rights violations, especially when people with badges and guns assault and arrest someone who appears to be doing a job protected by the First Amendment.
We are calling for a complete police investigation of an incident on August 11, when a photographer working for this paper was allegedly assaulted, arrested, and had his film seized and exposed by a Fort Lauderdale police officer. (See "Free the Press" within "Social Insecurity," Roger Williams, August 17.)
Josh Prezant was standing on a sidewalk, which is certainly public property, when he was arrested for "Trepass [sic] after warning" by officer Anthony Castro. Prezant says he was given permission by a federal officer to shoot pictures of a privately owned building being rented by the Social Security Administration. Prezant claims that during the incident Castro threatened him and swore at him repeatedly.
When Prezant asked for Officer Castro's name and badge number, he was denied that information. He was being held against his will and verbally abused, so Prezant did what came naturally: He began shooting photos of Castro and his vehicle for evidence. Apparently this lit a fuse that burned quickly.
Prezant shot five or six frames of Castro, then felt a blow to his head and the camera lens was knocked away. It was Castro. Prezant yelled for the federal officer nearby and asked him to remember what he saw. Castro seized the camera for evidence. Though it was given back after Prezant left jail, all the film had been exposed and the counter set back to zero.
A case like this becomes a swearing contest, as in both sides swear they did nothing wrong. That's where witnesses come in. (If you witnessed this incident, please call 954-233-1581.)
So we attempted to speak to the Federal Protective Services officer who was there, James A. Manning. His boss referred us to someone in Atlanta who says federal employees like Manning aren't supposed to talk to the news media. Manning didn't return our phone calls.
So what did happen out there that morning? Castro claimed in a complaint affidavit that Prezant was belligerent with a federal officer (not a crime in our book) and that he was "mouthing off at this officer, causing employees to come out of the building. The defendant was a concern to the safety of the employees." Huh?
A look at Castro's file indicates he has been a concern to the safety of citizens and has had a temper problem over the years; three complaints have been sustained against him. Indeed, Prezant says that, during the discussion about who was in the right, Castro told his partner, "It's a good thing that I don't have the temper I once had, or [Prezant] would be in big trouble."
Much of the discussion at the building centered on whether Prezant was working for the press or not. Castro claims Prezant refused to tell him for whom he was working (which seems odd). Prezant says he gave the name of this paper and his boss, but Castro claimed Prezant was actually working for a private investigator. Interestingly, when filling out paperwork, Castro wrote down Prezant's place of employment as New Times.
Now the attention -- and scrutiny --is focused on the Fort Lauderdale police department administration. Let's see how they respond.