Arresting reporters doesn't fit in well with "To Serve and Protect" | The Hoglawyer

Friday, December 14, 2007

Arresting reporters doesn't fit in well with "To Serve and Protect"

Posted By on Fri, Dec 14, 2007 at 8:18 PM

Many eons ago, I was a deputy prosecutor - mainly in the various district courts in Pulaski County. For about a year - I was Maumelle's assigned prosecutor - which was - to put mildly - a little slow   ( therefore, I simultaneously did Jacksonville, which is like the wild wild west compared to Maumelle)        The crime rate is Maumelle is almost nil unless you consider swearing at your golf club a crime.  I doubt much has changed since I have been there.   Then I see this report - that a reporter is arrested for - reporting.   Craziness.   sheer craziness.  This reminds me when LRPD was harassing Rod Bryan, that guy who ran for something, last year. Of course - he was yelling at the police ( to slow down ) but they acted as though they had caught public enemy #1.    Same in this case -- some state trooper ( not the Maumelle Police) with a little too much ego thinks no one can question him and arrests a guy for doing his job.     If the reporter's facts are accurate - I think the trooper should be arrested for civil rights violations -- really - this wasn't an honest mistake. This was a intentional infringement on a resident's civil rights.  As the reporter described the trooper, "[h]is demeanor was abusive, intimidating and downright scary." In my current job I work with the state police very closely and have never seen anything like this before.  I'm generally very pro-law enforcement and when there is a judgment call - I will usually lean in their favor but this is someone using his badge to be a bully  - this is not a policeman doing his job and merely getting carried away. 

The thing is - if this is something the state police find deserves discipline - but he isn't fired - we will never know unless he is suspended.  The reporter might decline to seek civil damages because he wasn't injured and like most normal people we don't sue just to "make a point." So there might never be another public word said about this incident which is sad because if this wasn't a reporter - it would have never been believed. I hope this is the only trooper in the state that is willing to treat people so unjustly but that means there is one trooper too many.

Here is the Monitor's article - see for yourself.   ( apparently the charge for obstruction was dismissed, Mr. Lawson has filed a complaint, and the trooper is currently on desk duty temporarily )
Newspaper Reporter Arrested Covering Story This article was published on Tuesday, December 11, 2007 6:43 PM CST in News By Bill Lawson
Maumelle Monitor

Editor's Note: This is a first-person account of Bill Lawson's arrest by a state trooper while attempting to take pictures at a house fire in Maumelle on Monday evening.

MAUMELLE -- Having lived 59 years, battled cancer, worn the country's uniform for 26 years and proudly worked as a journalist -- a profession I always admired -- I thought I'd seen it all. That is until Monday night, when I was arrested and charged with a criminal offense just for trying to do my job and take photos of a residential fire in Maumelle.

Being arrested, searched, having my camera, reporter's notebook and billfold confiscated, humiliated in front of friends and people I write about every week was a difficult way to be arrested for the first time in my life. The only other time I wore a pair of handcuffs was 10 years ago during a training class at the Law Enforcement Training Academy in Camden.

When I was told that I was being arrested it seemed like a dream. I knew I'd done nothing wrong. But I knew better than to argue with a sate trooper who obviously had an attitude.

Although I was arrested and handcuffed, not once was I read my rights. In fact, the State Police trooper told me I was being charged with obstructing governmental operations and one other offense. I can't remember what the second one was. It was such an incredulous feeling to be stopped from doing my job, much less to be arrested, that it was difficult to consider what was really happening.

All I was doing was what Capt. Gloria Weakland, State Police Troop A commander, advised me to do when I inquired via telephone months back about a fatality accident near Cabot and talked to her about covering the news. Capt. Weakland told me that I was welcome at any accident or incident scene and for me to approach the trooper there and identify myself with the news media and that I would have access to do my job.


That's all I was trying to do Monday evening. I didn't think the trooper in Maumelle had seen the press credential on my windshield and I approached him as she suggested to let him know who I was and why I was there. That's when he said he was going to arrest me for approaching him. He told me that he saw the press sign on my windshield and the ID around my neck but that it didn't mean anything to him.

Life has been difficult for me since my battle with cancer. The cancer, radiation treatments and multiple surgeries have all left their marks on me. Thank God I'm cancer-free, but I'm not half the young man who used to run the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds. In fact, this past weekend has been one of the most painful in my life. The medicine that I still must take often depletes my potassium and my muscles hurt so badly it's very difficult to move. I actually have to hold on to something to pull my way in and out of my vehicle so that I don't generate more pain in my legs. I use my arms and hands as much as possible to keep from using my legs to even lift me out of chairs because of the pain.

Of course, being overweight makes it even more difficult. For the first two years of my battle with cancer, I had to take steroid shots along with the 18 different kinds of medicine, to even feel like getting out of bed. A combination of the cancer's damage to my kidneys, bladder and colon and the steroids added about 100 pounds to my already large frame. But I tell people everyday that I'd rather be fat and alive than skinny and dead. My physician tells me that some of the kidney medicine I take contributes to the retention of fluids in spite of other medicine to help relieve that problem.

The combination of medical problems and being overweight makes for a slow-moving wide body. Walking is a chore and an occasional run or climbing stairs leaves me breathless. After being handcuffed and forced to stand still for more than 30 minutes beside his Arkansas State Police vehicle with unit number A-54 on it, I couldn't move a muscle. When I squirmed, the trooper was yelling at me to stop resisting. Standing with my arms behind me was difficult and painful to the point of being unbearable. I know what resisting is and I did nothing that could be considered that. The too-tight handcuffs hurt my wrists and I have scratches from them on my right arm where the trooper hit it while slapping the handcuffs on me. All of that and the pain of standing still for so long was unbearable, but I knew better than to complain or suffer the trooper's wrath.

His demeanor was abusive, intimidating and downright scary.

Some of my friends on the Maumelle Fire Department came over to check on me. I was still 50 to 75 yards away from the minor fire and they all wondered what was going on. They asked if they could help and I told my publisher's son-in-law, who is a firefighter, to call him in case I needed to be bailed out of jail. The firemen later told me they couldn't believe I had been arrested for attempting to take photos far away from the fire. In fact, they called the Maumelle Police Department to come and check on me because they said they were worried about me.

After my boss' son-in-law left, the trooper came over and asked if I was somebody special. I told him no, I'm just a reporter. Then he wanted to know whom I asked the fireman to call and I explained that it was my boss. He then asked which newspaper I worked for and I tried to explain that I worked for several newspapers owned by Stephens Media. He wanted to argue with me, telling me I'd mentioned a specific newspaper earlier. Every time I tried to explain, the trooper would interrupt me, like a trial attorney would do when they're trying to discredit you.

I wanted to tell him that I needed to sit down but I was afraid he'd charge me with something else, or worse. After all, he had the gun and authority of a state trooper and I was just a journalist with a notepad and a camera. As mad as he was, I feared for my safety. He had roughed me up a little bit, pulling my left hand behind my back and then demanding that I let go of the camera in my right hand. I wasn't about to drop a $1,500 camera with a $400 strobe light on it. He grabbed it and yelled at me until I let it go. He took it, walked off behind me and later placed the camera on the trunk of his vehicle.

After he visited with several Maumelle police officers, he came up to me and asked me, "If I take these handcuffs off you, are you going to behave?"

I was stunned. From the moment he told me to turn around because I was under arrest for taking his photo, I attempted to follow his every command for fear of what he might do. I was handcuffed and defenseless. Not that I'd have tried to resist; I have too much respect for law enforcement officers to do that, even when I know I didn't do anything wrong.

As I was handcuffed, he tried to tell me that I'd stuck the camera "up in my face, inches from my nose, snapping it over and over attempting to blind me." I tried to explain that the camera had been set on motor drive in order to capture the firefighters in action and that I had actually only snapped it once. He wanted to argue and said that I held it down for 10 seconds or longer, telling me that he knew all about cameras.

Even hours after the arrest, it all seems like a dream. A very bad dream. Maumelle Police Chief Sam Williams told me that I should file a complaint against the state trooper. I told him that wasn't my style because I have so much respect for all police officers and the difficult jobs they do.

I've worked closely with state troopers and count many of them as friends. In April 2006 when a trooper sergeant died out on a roadblock, I was so inspired when I attended his funeral in Searcy that I wrote a newspaper column tribute to him and all troopers, entitled "The Thin Blue Line," that ended up being reprinted in the Arkansas State Police Association's magazine.

After the episode, Chief Williams told me he might have yelled at me if he thought I'd overstepped my bounds, but he said he certainly wouldn't have arrested me for just doing my job.

Standing on a public street in a city where I've covered much more serious fires than this one, I couldn't have believed that my First Amendment rights to cover and report the news would have been abridged. Even worse than the painful handcuffing episode, the state trooper turned me around so that I could not even see the firefighters in action putting out the fire. That was adding insult to injury. Now I can't even report on their outstanding efforts to save a home -- because I wasn't allowed to see it and I can't report what I didn't see.

Bill Lawson covers Pulaski County government for Stephens Media's Central Arkansas Newspapers, but currently is assigned to Maumelle.

Trooper complaint filed

Bill Lawson, the Stephens Media reporter arrested by a state trooper at the scene of a house fire in Maumelle this week -- apparently for taking the trooper's photo -- filed a complaint against the trooper today. His account is on the jump.

FROM BILL LAWSON

 filed the official complaint today with the Arkansas State Police's internal affairs unit. They interviewed me for 45 minutes. They asked some tough questions to see if I had any ongoing beefs with other troopers, any alcohol or drug use, mental problems, any grudges or to see if I had an agenda.


They took the complaint seriously and acted as professional as every trooper I've ever known except for the one I met Monday evening.


I explained my long history of working with troopers back to my days working for Dale and Betty Bumpers as the national guard PR guy promoting their childhood immunization campaign, as a guy who wrote a column in April 2006 explaining what the Thin Blue Line meant and why so many policemen turn out for a fellow officer's funeral after I attended the services in Searcy for my friend Sgt. Troy Mouser who died out on a roadblock. I explained how the Arkansas State Police Association reprinted the column in their summer edition of their magazine.
 
They asked what I expected to be done to the trooper and I told them that was not my decision but I'd hope that he would learn that journalists have a First Amendment right to cover news and to take photos without abuse, that he would learn to be respectful to the public even if he was writing them a ticket for speeding or whatever and that he needed to learn how to control his anger, perhaps through an anger management class.
 
I was told that it would take 30 days to complete at least and that they would interview witnesses and the trooper last. They asked if I knew anyone else who had problems with this officer and the ask them to call if they did so they could be interviewed.
 
I have every confidence in our judicial system and in the current administration in the state police to get to the bottom of this issue and to take appropriate action. I believe that I will be vindicated but I'll wait for their official ruling.
 
Bill


 

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Citation against reporter dismissed
Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK - Prosecutors asked a judge Friday to dismiss a misdemeanor citation issued to a newspaper journalist after he began taking pictures at the scene of a fire in Maumelle.

State Trooper Tom Weindruch, 33, arrested Bill Lawson, 59, a reporter-photographer for Stephens Media, and detained him for about 30 minutes Monday night before citing him for obstructing governmental operations. Lawson filed a formal complaint with state police Thursday over the incident, accusing Weindruch of inappropriate and hostile behavior.

Sherwood District Judge Butch Hale dismissed the citation against Lawson Friday afternoon.

"After we reviewed the incident report and the videotape (from a camera in Weindruch's vehicle) and looked at the relevant statute, we didn't feel as though the charge was appropriate, given what we read and saw," Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley said.

Meanwhile, state police officials said Friday Weindruch was removed from enforcement status late Thursday and assigned to temporary office duties while the agency continues to investigate the incident.

Weindruch does not have a listed telephone number and has not spoken to the Arkansas News Bureau, Stephens Media's Little Rock bureau, about the incident.

State Police Director Col. Winford Phillips said Friday he had not read news reports of the incident because he wants to remain as unbiased as possible when reviewing the results of the internal investigation, which Phillips said he has asked to be expedited.

"I want to be proactive," he said.

Phillips said a report on the internal investigation could be ready sometime next week, although that was not definite. After he reviews the report, he will make a decision, which the State Police Commission will then vote on, Phillips said.

Lawson said he was pleased the charge was dismissed but felt it was still a sad day.

"It's a sad day for the Arkansas State Police, because they've always had such high standards," he said. "I've always had so many friends in the state police, and so many strong ties and associations with them."

Lawson said it was "painful" for him to file a complaint over the incident, but he felt he had to do so.

Weindruch "arrested me for a criminal offense for trying to exercise my constitutional right, and I felt like I needed to stand up for all the photojournalists in Arkansas, and reporters, who have a job to do," Lawson said.

Lawson said he was walking toward the scene of a chimney fire on High Timber Drive when Weindruch ordered him to move back, then arrested him and placed him in handcuffs after he took a photo of Weindruch from about 10 feet away.

Weindruch will do office work at state police headquarters in Little Rock while the investigation continues, officials said. He has been ordered not to wear his uniform or make any attempt to act in the capacity of a law enforcement officer.



-------

Arkansas News Bureau reporter Jason Wiest contributed to this report.


BREAKING NEWS: Trooper removed from enforcement duty status
Friday, Dec 14, 2007



LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas State Trooper Thomas Weindruch has been removed from enforcement duty status and effective Thursday evening was assigned to temporary office duties inside the department's headquarters facility. State Police Director Col. Winford Phillips has ordered Weindruch not to wear the uniform of the department nor make any attempt to act in the capacity of a law enforcement officer. The reassignment will continue during the course of an ongoing internal affairs investigation based on the complaint of Stephens Media reporter Bill Lawson.

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