An NYPD lie about journalist arrests shows why it must not control press credentials

NYPD officer in riot gear

photo by Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0

A photojournalist who spent this summer documenting New York’s civil unrest and a documentary filmmaker were among 10 people violently arrested by NYPD officers in full body armor at a protest in Manhattan on Sunday. Video shows police roughly arresting Chae Kihn and Ashley Dorelus even as multiple protestors identified them as members of the press.

NYPD, through a statement on its Twitter account, bluntly denied the allegations, despite the clear video evidence. But its denial is both careful and misleading: although the department first claims that no “members of the press were arrested,” it then narrows the assertion to say the “arrested individuals” specifically did not include “NYPD credentialed members of the press.”

That sleight of hand — conflating “members of the press” with those bearing NYPD-issued credentials — reveals a longstanding problem with the process of obtaining press passes in New York and elsewhere. For historical and logistical reasons, in New York and many other cities it is police departments who issue those passes. But the police are not the arbiter of who may act as a journalist, and are not the source of press freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. And the NYPD in particular has repeatedly and systematically abused those credentialing powers.

New York City reporters have long complained about the NYPD's byzantine credentialing process. Local news outlet Gothamist faced an expensive eight-year saga before it was finally granted press passes. Reporter Noah Hurowitz this summer called the credential application process “a classic catch-22,” because journalists are required to submit clips that show a history of writing stories that require a press pass in order to be given one. Wired once referred to the process as “kafka-esque” and succinctly summarized the ordeal in a 2011 headline: “Media can avoid NYPD arrest by getting a press pass they can’t get.”

Numerous journalists can also point to episodes where the NYPD used its control over credentials and the power to revoke them to control coverage. This summer, the New York Times editorial board joined the chorus in formally calling for a transfer of credentialing oversight away from the police.

Giving police control over the official press credentialing process has always had drawbacks, but it has proven totally unworkable in a moment where the NYPD has actively antagonized the press and other forms of accountability. This year alone, the NYPD have arrested or assaulted more than a dozen journalists, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Beyond that, a recent Human Rights Watch report concluded that the NYPD's actions at one widely covered June 4 protest in the Bronx, including the detention of medics and legal observers, were “intentional, planned, and unjustified.”

The photojournalist arrested Sunday, Chae Kihn, echoed concerns about police escalation, especially as it pertains to working journalists. “They didn't need to use such excessive force arresting me. I had four big policemen tackle me to the ground. I am not a threat to anyone. I'm a photographer documenting this movement.”

Two New York City Council Members, with the support of Comptroller Scott Stringer, introduced a bill last month to transfer the oversight of press credentials away from NYPD to the city's department of administrative services. Freedom of the Press Foundation applauds this effort, and we hope to see more reforms that would strip some of the sprawling powers away from a police department that has repeatedly shown a fundamental disregard for basic law, order, and accountability.

It is outrageous that the NYPD is in charge of deciding who is a “journalist” in the eyes of New York City. The sooner that role is removed in the eyes of the law, the better.

Updated to add a response from Chae Kihn, the arrested photojournalist.

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