Chicago police respect public’s right to record

Despite Illinois’s draconian wiretapping law

When it comes to preventing citizens from recording police, Illinois has the most severe restrictions in the US. State law explicitly says that citizens may face up to 15 years in jail for filming an on-duty police officer without consent. But on April 27, Chicago city officials announced they would not be enforcing the eavesdropping law during the NATO summit on May 20-21. Then, on May 8, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that the state’s wiretapping law “likely violates the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-press guarantees,” making it much harder to use in a prosecution.

So lots of people were watching Chicago this weekend to see if police would still arrest photographers despite their pledge not to enforce the eavesdropping law. Things went better than many expected, and much praise is being laid on the CPD and Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy for preventing major violence between protestors and officers. Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, was in Chicago monitoring the situation and working with journalists in case they were arrested or interfered with. He describes the CPD as “incredibly restrained” this weekend, in both “how they dealt with protestors and the media.”

Contrary to actions taken by law enforcement at other protests around the country, Osterreicher says citizens filming in Chicago were treated the same as the officially credentialed press. “The Chicago police were not hanging their hats on credentialing,” says Osterreicher. “They pretty much let anybody and everybody walk around and take all the pictures and video that they wanted.”

The police department’s official tallies from the weekend’s demonstrations came in at 90 people arrested; most of those were reportedly released without charges. While it doesn’t appear that police specifically targeted those wielding cameras, some negative reports about police actions towards members of the press have emerged. Josh Stearns from Free Press created a Tumblr collecting photos of “journalist abuse and arrest” from NATO. Stearns also tracked “journalist arrests and press suppression” from NATO in this storify.

Early Sunday morning, a group of livestreamers, including Tim Pool, famed for his 21-hour livestreaming marathon of the Zuccotti Park eviction, were pulled over by police. Pool told NBC they were handcuffed and interrogated, but released soon after.

Sunday afternoon, Getty photographer Scott Olson was hit over the head with a police baton on Sunday; this photo of him shows the bloody wound. Getty freelance photographer Joshua Lott was arrested Sunday evening and charged with mob action, a felony in Illinois.

A reporter who observed Lott’s arrest called a hotline set up by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with whom Osterreicher was working. Osterreicher had recently done a training session with Chicago Police; after being told of Lott’s arrest, he called one of the chiefs he met from the training, explaining that Lott was a journalist. The charge got reduced to reckless conduct, a misdemeanor.

Much preparation went into making these protests go smoothly, and Osterreicher played a part in that. He’s held trainings about the rights of citizens to record in public with Chicago’s Police Department. He’s done similar events with Tampa and Charlotte’s law enforcement units in preparation for the political conventions, as well as in Washington DC. He’s uniquely qualified to bring this message. He worked as a journalist for 40 years, and as a lawyer for NPPA for the past six, but he’s also been a reserve deputy sheriff in Erie County, New York since 1976. He says his background in law enforcement has helped convince police departments to listen to what he has to say. “I’m not only coming in with a narrow view of photographers’ rights. I also understand law enforcement’s position,” says Osterreicher. “The time to have a dialogue is before everyone’s out on the streets and the adrenaline is flowing.”

Osterreicher says that when he’s training with law enforcement he uses a line that “police officers love to say all the time”: “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.” The easy way, he says, is through education, a method he prefers. “Where its necessary, we will do it the hard way,” says Osterreicher, “in terms of bringing lawsuits.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,