« July 2008 | Main | November 2008 »

August 22, 2008

Tribune photographer handcuffed at crash scene sues Oakland police

The following article appears at sfgate.com

The scariest thing about this article is not the article itself, it's the reader comments that follow it. A large number of comments slam Mr. Chavez for doing his job and documenting the story rather than helping the victims of the crash. I wonder if Mr. Chavez is a qualified EMT and if helping the victims would have actually helped at all? ...or made matters worse for the victims? Some say that he is a ghoul that just wanted to get gruesome photos and make money off the accident ... maybe that's the case maybe not, who knows? .... but are we ready to make that a crime? I don't think so.

Please follow the link above to see the reader comments.

(08-22) 10:37 PDT OAKLAND -- An Oakland Tribune photographer filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today against the city of Oakland, saying police illegally barred him from taking pictures at a freeway crash scene and handcuffed him when he persisted.

Ray Chavez, 44, said officers had interfered with his right as a member of the press to cover news, specifically a car crash and the emergency response time. The incident last year caused him to be "arrested and handcuffed without justification solely due to the exercise of First Amendment rights," said his suit, filed in U.S. District Court.

"It has been very stressful since I was humiliated by the OPD officers," Chavez said in an interview. "They should do their jobs and not interfere with ours as media members. These cops need to be re-educated. I don't think they know what the First Amendment and freedom of the press means."

Alex Katz, spokesman for City Attorney John Russo, declined to comment. The city previously rejected a claim that Chavez filed in connection with the incident.

On May 4, 2007, Chavez was driving north on Interstate 880 near the 29th Avenue exit in Oakland when a car in front of him crashed and rolled over in the fast lane. Chavez, wearing his press credential around his neck, got out of his car and began taking pictures, "considering this a spot news matter," the suit said.

Oakland police Officer Kevin Reynolds told Chavez that he should leave, the suit said. When Chavez replied that he had a right to be there as a member of the press. Reynolds angrily told him that he "didn't have any business here (and) that it was a crime scene," the suit said.

When Chavez took photos of an arriving ambulance, Reynolds blocked his camera and told him, "You don't need to take these kind of photos," according to the suit.

Reynolds asked for Chavez's identification and began writing him a citation, the suit said. As a California Highway Patrol cruiser arrived, Chavez again took pictures. That prompted Reynolds to say, "That's it. You're under arrest," the suit said.

The officer made Chavez sit next to the overturned car with his hands behind his back for a half-hour, the suit said. Passing motorists mistakenly believed Chavez had caused the crash and "cursed and made derogatory references to and signs at plaintiff while he sat on the ground handcuffed," the suit said.

Oakland police Officer Cesar Garcia told Chavez that he would be cited for impeding traffic and failing to obey a lawful order. The officers gave him the citation, removed the handcuffs and let him go, but not before Reynolds warned him, "Don't ever come here again to take these kinds of photos," the suit said.

The suit names the city, Police Chief Wayne Tucker, Reynolds and Garcia. It seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court injunction directing police to train its officers about allowing the media "reasonable access to accident and crime scenes and behind police lines."

Chavez was named photojournalist of the year earlier this month by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He has been with the Tribune for 14 years.

"The Oakland Police Department must abide by state statute and their own regulations as to what is appropriate, to allow the press to adequately cover newsworthy events," said Chavez's attorney, Terry Gross. "Whenever there's an incident, a crime scene, if there's no interference going on, then the OPD rules and state statute provide this right of access to the scene."

E-mail Henry K. Lee at [email protected].

August 05, 2008

Response from the 99 ABW Commander

Click on the image to go to flickr and read the letter and my response.