March 7, 2002
To: Michael Satz, Kathy Rundle, South Florida prosecutors, police officers
Re: Misplaced priorities
It has come to my attention recently that you law-enforcement types have lost respect for a little something called the truth.
No, this isn't 9/11-related. Cops have been hassling reporters and photographers for quite a while. Slapping on the cuffs so they can't speak with suspects. Tossing them in patrol cars so they can't snap important photographs. Even threatening them with up to ten years of hard time to dissuade them from rolling film that might incriminate police officers.
Indeed, an informal survey indicates that South Florida is probably the worst place in the nation for journalists who dislike the pokey. In just the past two years, police in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have arrested at least eight photographers and reporters who were trying to gather news. In every collar except the most recent one (of Sun-Sentinel director of photography Jerry Lower, which is still pending), prosecutors have dropped charges or juries have found the journalists not guilty.
Perhaps even more egregious than the detention of journalists is the case of Miami attorney Robert Bollinger, whose brutal beating by Davie police was described in New Times this past August 30. As part of a plea deal, Broward Assistant State Attorney Jorie Tress -- backed by Circuit Court Judge Royce Agner -- required Bollinger to lie by retracting truthful statements he made to New Times. "This is 1984" was all Bollinger would say when I phoned him for comment.
In most of the recent cases, authorities have asserted they were simply trying to keep everyone safe at a crime scene -- obviously a noble intention. But a closer inspection shows that, at least in some circumstances, law-enforcement personnel have abused authority and wasted public money on dumb prosecutions and ridiculous appeals. The effect is to send an ugly message: Cops and prosecutors consider order more important than openness.
"When you are out there on the front lines, you are at the mercy of these sometimes arrogant and vicious personnel," says Jim Gordon, editor of News Photographer, the monthly magazine of the National Press Photographers Association in Durham, North Carolina.
Arrest and imprisonment of South Florida journalists is an old tradition. Back in April 1978, News Photographer printed a series of startling photos from the Palm Beach Post-Times (the Palm Beach Post's predecessor) of a shotgun-wielding state trooper rushing photographer C.J. Walker as he snapped pictures of four armed robbery suspects on I-95. The officer then tugged a camera away.
The Highway Patrol, after investigating the incident, couldn't justify the trooper's actions. It apologized.
The most recent spate of journalist arrests began in January 2000, when officers at Miami International Airport collared the Herald's Arnie Markowitz, a crime reporter with 41 years of experience, who was checking out a report that an Immigration and Naturalization Service prisoner had escaped into a restricted area. Though two airport workers opened the door to the area, which was unmarked, police charged Markowitz with trespassing. He was later acquitted at trial.
"The airport security director insisted the cop arrest me," recalls Markowitz, who nevertheless managed to write his story on deadline that day. "Perhaps if he had taken the time to reflect, he would have said, "Fuck it.' It was a bad judgment call."
A few months later, in April, Associated Press reporter Margaret Richards was nabbed after she tried to get an interview in one of the year's biggest media events, the R.J. Reynolds tobacco trial at the downtown Miami courthouse. Richards's sin: She told Miami-Dade Sgt. Richard Conover that she was going to enter the courtroom to get some personal belongings, then began speaking to members of the plaintiffs' families. The charge was misdemeanor obstruction of justice.
In February 2001, Miami-Dade County Court Judge Caryn Schwartz dismissed the charges against Richards. In an 11-page decision -- much more detailed than most findings in misdemeanor cases -- Schwartz said the state hadn't made much of a case. Though prosecutors appealed the dismissal, this past December, the circuit court affirmed Schwartz's decision.
Piling lunacy upon stupidity, the state appealed a second time in January. There's been no decision yet. Nor has there been an accounting of how much public money has been wasted. Richards, meanwhile, has moved to New York.
Just a few weeks after Richards's arrest came the seizure of Elián Gonzalez. Journalists from around the world were camped outside the Gonzalez house for months.
Three people were arrested when immigration authorities raided the home. Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole was held for eight hours after police claimed she had thrown rocks at them to provoke a response. Miami Herald cameraman Raul Rubiera was accused of resisting arrest and obstructing justice. And NBC News's Bruce Bernstein was nailed for, among other things, battery on a police officer. Charges against all were later dropped.