"Interfering with traffic"
Accident, or crime scenes, are often emotional places. Understandably, people who find themselves at the centre of attention have a lot on their mind are not keen with the presence of the media. For the most part, police, ambulance and fire personnel are fine with media presence as long as we don’t interfere with the rescue, or investigation. There are times, when we (media) get closer then necessary and are told to move further back.
The following occurred a few days ago and details what transpired as I went about my duties as a photographer covering "spot" news.
Tuesday morning I came upon a newly developed accident scene. Progress along the Gardiner eastbound was stymied, mostly by one of the two vehicles. It was inverted and straddling the two left lanes. The other vehicle was stopped in the #1 lane, and an OPP court services van stopped immediately behind.
I pulled my car out of traffic and grabbed cameras and attended the scene. I made a quick assumption the OPP van officers witnessed the accident and we’re now waiting for emergency response by local authorities. One OPP officer stood with the young female driver of the inverted car. She was visibly upset and was rubbing her neck.
The scene was rather calm and collected, so I began to photograph. With no real need to get in close with a wide angle lens, I stayed back and used my 70-200 zoom lens. Only a few frames were made with a wide angle.
Toronto Fire was first to respond. I continued to shoot pictures with the longer lens affording a healthy gap of about 25 feet between myself and the firefighters as they began to immobilize the young woman’s neck. As they worked, and I photographed, I heard someone yell something, but it didn’t really register. The 2nd yell did register.
Two officers from Traffic Services were arriving. One went toward the young woman and the care she was receiving, the other was coming directly at me and telling me to stop taking pictures. I waved my lanyard of credentials at him and told him I was from The Star and continued to shoot more pictures.
He wasn’t impressed, nor did he seem to care. Although the initial exchange included the term "buddy," it was clear from his demeanor nothing friendly was being communicated.
He demanded I stop taking pictures and return to my car.
I declined his offer and began a dialogue with the young officer. I asked what the issue was since I was well away from the scene and was not impeding the care being given. He continued to demand I leave the scene, but had to real explanation other then "this is my scene" and he wanted me gone from it.
There was no imminent danger. I was NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, hindering medical attention. I was not contaminating the scene (I was physically ahead of the scene). I wasn’t interfering with traffic.
I’ve been doing this job long enough to know what "rights" are accorded to the gathering of news. I could see no justifiable reason for issuing such a command.
The officer then threatened to give me a ticket for parking on the highway if I didn’t return to my car and leave immediately. I declined to leave and he asked for my licence.
When I asked why he wanted my licence, he said he was going to issue me a ticket. As I gave him my ID, I then demanded his name, badge, and the name of the duty Sergeant. (He did provide the information I wanted.)
The officer then began to talk to the OPP officer (from the van) and then the uninjured driver of the 2nd vehicle. I purposely took a few more pictures to document the fact he furthered his accident investigation.
He didn’t like that either.
He again yelled at me to stop photographing and walked back towards me and demanded I "sit in your car or I’ll charge you criminally." This, I must admit, infuriated me. His threats to charge me were absolutely unjustified. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, I’ve been threatened with such a charge. The most common charge journalists, at such scenes, are threatened with is obstruction of justice. Its far more common then you might think. I would estimate, in the course of my work career, I’ve been threatened dozens of times.
I steadfastly REFUSED to do as he commanded. He again ordered me to my car and reasserted the threat.
"WITH WHAT?" I yelled back at him, wanting to know what "criminal" charge he would invoke. He didn’t answer, simply restated to wait in my car, and he walked away.
About this time the ambulance rolled up. As the young woman was put on a gurney and taken away I elected to not shoot any frames, even though I believe I was well within my rights to do so. But there was no need to escalate the situation any further. My assignment editor was made aware of what was transpiring on my end, and I now waited for my ID to be returned.
Within a few minutes of the ambulance leaving, the officer returned my licence and produced a Offence Notice to me. The set fine is $50 ($65 with surcharge). The violation; interfere with traffic.
I did indeed call the officers' immediate supervisor to make him aware of what I experienced earlier. I expressed to him my dismay. I made it clear to him in my 25 years of working as a news photographer, and having been on numerous scenes near identical to this, I had NEVER received a ticket under such circumstances. I also relayed to him I found his officer’s conduct less then professional.
I don’t think this particular situation could have been handled differently. His immediate command to me to vacate the scene without bothering to find out if I had any legitimate reason for being there, caused me to defend my work and my right to be there.
Sadly, I think I got a ticket because he felt he had to follow through with something. I think a more practical resolution would have been to reevaluate his position once he discovered I was, in fact, a member of a legitimate news gathering operation.
That didn’t happen.
I got a ticket.
Guess I’ll see him in court.