A former Howard County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services battalion chief, Kevin Buker, is suing to get his job back. Buker’s lawyer, Edward Robson, contends that Buker’s First Amendment rights were violated when Buker was fired in March after posting comments to his personal Facebook page while on duty January 20th, a month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Here are excerpts from the article by Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun:
Edward S. Robson, Buker’s lead lawyer, said the county made it “very clear” in his termination notice that “the reason they terminated him was because of the substance of his comments on Facebook,” not because he was spending time on social media while on duty.
Howard County Solicitor Margaret Ann Nolan said in an email that “the employment action taken did not violate the law; the specific arguments in support of that defense will be set out in our written response filed in court.”
Using his personal Facebook page that did not identify him as a member of the county fire department, the court document says Buker posted: “My aide had an outstanding idea. … Let’s kill someone with a liberal … then maybe we can get them outlawed too! Think of the satisfaction of beating a liberal with another liberal. … Its almost poetic.”
One of Buker’s Facebook friends, Mark Grutzmacher, responded online, saying, “But … was it an [assault] liberal’? Gotta pick a fat one, those are the ‘high capacity’ ones. Oh pick a black one, those are more ‘scary.’ Sorry, had to perfect on a cool idea!”
Buker “liked” Grutzmacher’s comment, adding, “Too cool, Mark Grutzmacher.”
Since the posting on June 11 of the video from the day before showing Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) Fire Chief Charles Coldren confronting self-decribed activist Chris Shellhammer we have received almost 800 comments on the blog and on Facebook. I have never seen so much agreement among our readers. With the exception of a very few people, everyone thought Chief Coldren’s actions were wrong.
For the most part, the small number of people who have defended Chief Coldren indicated they know him and pointed out that we don’t know what happened before that confrontation. Even Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike said Chief Coldren had to be provoked for him to react the way that he did.
Shellhammer and his family have indicated from the start that more video had been shot leading up to Coldren’s tirade. Well, here it is. It was posted yesterday to YouTube by Shellhammer. In the description Shellhammer writes ”Note the children walking through the ‘emergency’ scene at the 2:00 min mark.”
That I can see, the video is very boring. If there is provocation I am missing it.
“Nobody should judge me on one incident,” is the message TribLive.com reporter Liz Zemba got in a phone conversation with Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) Fire Chief Chuck Coldren yesterday, three days after his tirade against a citizen with a camera was posted to YouTube. The citizen is self-described activist Chris Shellhammer who, along with his mother, has been involved in protests at the courthouse and police station and regularly videos police activity.
Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike, who says the incident will be investigated, reiterated what he told other reporters, “For him to come unglued like that, somebody had to provoke him.” But according to reporter Zemba, who has seen additional raw video shot by Shellhammer, there is no indiction of anything leading up to the confrontation.
“I’ve devoted 40-plus years of public service to the city of Uniontown,” Coldren said. “I’ve always been totally professional. People who don’t know me have no right to judge me.”
“They were at a bomb scare, where people are in harm’s way, and you’re trying to keep people out of harm’s way,” Fike said. “It’s not like Chuck is a mean, degrading, terrible person, because he isn’t.”
“There are two sides to every story,” Fike said. “We have to look at the video and talk to Chuck to get to the real cause of it to determine whatever the reprimand will be, if anything.”
Some thoughts on how Uniontown is dealing with this incident. When a man dressed in civilian clothes, screams “leave” to a citizen standing in an area that is not blocked off and the citizen asks who he is, if your first answer is “I’m the fire chief, do you want to f#$*ing argue with me?”, you should be throwing in the towel immediately. Stop trying to defend the indefensible, making excuses and looking for ways to justify the chief’s response and his apparent threat to do bodily harm to the citizen. All you are doing now is stretching this story into multiple days of news coverage and making sure that even more people see how stupid your fire chief looks and how lame your excuses are.
There should have been an apology from day one. With the apology should be an explanation from the mayor and fire chief that Uniontown and it’s officials recognize the rights of citizens to take pictures along with an announcement that guidelines are in place to prevent this from happening again.
If these leaders have any sense, something similar to that will ultimately occur anyway. It almost always does. Why wait and destroy your credibility and image further? Swallow your pride, get over yourself and deal with it like reponsible leaders.
In addition, if you are the person promising an investigation, when you make a statement that “somebody had to provoke him” when there is no clear evidence in the public record to back up that point, you are letting everyone know that getting to the bottom of what happened may not be your real goal.
There was a lot to learn in the original video showing the chief going nuclear and there is a lot to learn from how Uniontown is handling the fallout.
We introduced you to Chuck Coldren Tuesday night. He is the career fire chief of Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) making a little more than $56,000 per year. The chief, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, let Uniontown resident Chris Shellhammer have it on Monday at an emergency incident. Shellhammer’s video is now making news. Local newspapers and at least two Pittsburgh TV stations did the story yesterday trying to get to the bottom of the fire chief’s tirade.
It turns out Chief Coldren missed his latest turn on camera because he is on vacation and reporters could not reach him at his home or office. This left Mayor Ed Fike to answer for Uniontown. Upon seeing the video, Mayor Fiske described Chief Coldren as a low-key guy who had to have been provoked to act that way. Shellhammer claims there was no provocation. The mayor told reporters there will now be an investigation and if an apology is warranted he is sure the chief will have no problem doing that.
The video has prompted lots of discussion with hundreds of comments posted on STATter911.com and related Facebook pages and many other forums. Only a couple of people have come to the chief’s defense so far.
Uniontown resident Chris Shellhammer likes to know what’s going on in his neighborhood. So when he saw police and fire vehicles near his home on Monday, he walked over to see what he could see. He also started capturing video with his cellphone.
In the video, Uniontown Fire Chief Charles Coldren approaches Shellhammer in plain clothes and ask him to move back, which Shellhammer does. Shellhammer suggests the area should be taped off if the public is not allowed. That’s when the encounter escalates.
“You’re not going to tell me how to do my (expletive) job. Now, if you want to keep running your lip I’ll have you (expletive) arrested. You can record me all you want. I don’t give a flying (expletive),” Coldren says in the video.
It’s important to note, Shellhammer described himself and his family members as “community activists,” and they’ve become known in the community as a result. Shellhammer said he’s skeptical of authority and often joins protests at the Fayette County courthouse. However, in the Internet video, Shellhammer’s responses don’t seem to warrant Coldren’s responses and, at one point, Coldren appears to challenge Shellhammer to a fight.
“You want to put that down and take it to another level?” Coldren said in the video. “Let’s go.”
Action News went to Coldren’s Uniontown home looking for answers but he didn’t answer the door. An employee at the fire station said he is on vacation until next week. Channel 4 was first to show Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike the Internet video, which has now been viewed more than 5,000 times.
“You only hear one side of it, not that that makes either side right,” Fike said.
As you watch this, I will be the first to admit, other than what is evident on the video, I have no clue what kind of scene this was or what the person with the camera did or didn’t do to warrant the expletives coming from the man who says on the video he is the “fire chief”. What I do know is that, much like Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Captain Greg Smart’s infamous on camera tirade, this is probably not the best way for professionals who deal with public to handle with this situation. Even if you are right, you undermine your own authority and reputation with actions like this caught on camera.
The description with the video from ccspagan simply asks, “Is this how public officials should treat taxpayers?”
D.C. Fire and EMS put five firefighters on desk duty after one of them posted a picture critical of D.C. police on Facebook and four others commented on it.
After a D.C. police officer wrote a traffic ticket for a firefighter, that firefighter took a picture of the officer walking toward his cruiser and posted it on his Facebook page with a comment to the effect of “This is why we should be careful and take our time getting to incident scenes,” sources told News4.
The post is said to be so inflammatory it was brought directly to the attention of both Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Top D.C. fire and police officials viewed those comments as a reference to the March incident in which a D.C. motorcycle officer waited 20 minutes after being struck by a hit-and-run driver before being transported to a hospital by an ambulance from Prince George’s County.
D.C. fire immediately transferred those five firefighters from the field to desk duty.
“Right now it’s in the investigation phase,” said Ed Smith, of the firefighter union. “Hopefully they’ll be back to duty soon, and then we’ll have to deal with any disciplinary proceedings if there are any depending on the outcome of the investigation.”
The temporary reassignment of that many firefighters affects staffing levels, Smith said.
“Having these members off the street on desk duty definitely adds to the overtime problem and other members getting relief from duty,” he said.
Through a spokesman, Ellerbe said the fire department can’t comment because it is a personnel matter.
The post was removed from the firefighter’s Facebook page.
Four firefighters commented on the original post, and were also assigned to desk duty, according to Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association.
“There isn’t a social media policy in place,” says Smith. “If members are going to be held accountable then it needs to be upfront and the rules need to be known about what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds,” says Smith.
Smith says the issue isn’t only a public safety concern.
“Employees in all workplaces are struggling with social media policies,” says Smith.
The head of the firefighters’ union says establishing a policy reflects expectations, but also provides for free speech.
“You have to find that fine line between keeping the public trust and respecting members’ First Amendment rights,” says Smith.
Smith says he’s reached out to his counterpart in the police union, “just to let him know we respect our brothers and sisters in blue.”
D.C. Fire has not responded to a request for comment.
Under the policy, department personnel can be reprimanded for anything they write online about their jobs that doesn’t adhere to conduct rules, which require “good judgment” and “courtesy and respect to the public and to fellow employees.” The policy also restricts them from sharing information about fire scenes.
Fire Chief James S. Clack said the department crafted the policy to protect firefighters from getting into trouble for sharing sensitive information.
But union leaders called the policy too broad and said the department created it unilaterally after negotiations with union attorneys broke down last month. Social media and free-speech advocates balked at the scope of the policy and questioned its legality.
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda attorney who has advised state legislators in Annapolis on social media policy, said the new provisions are “troubling” and potentially unconstitutional.
“I think the policy is clearly suspect,” Shear said. “It’s over-broad, it’s retroactive, and I think they need to go back to the drawing board.”
Chief Clack told The Sun that while attorneys for the City threw in a lot of things, ”I’m going to be most interested in people when they’re working”,
The policy, like many these days, brings up as many questions as it answers. One thing that is banned is ”the real-time public disclosure of locations of deployed units, assets or personnel or any other real-time information from an incident scene.” Until earlier this year, IAFF Local 734 was using Baltimore City firefighters to provide such information to the public much as IAFF Local 36 in Washington, DC is doing currently. Could a fire department legally ban such union activity?
Four York, Maine volunteer firefighters have taken a very public stand on the state’s marriage equality initiative. The firefighters appear in a 30-second TV spot supporting the initiative and a fellow firefighter who is gay.
Firefighters taking part in political ads is nothing new. We’ve seen it at all levels, from a small volunteer department supporting a local sheriff to the IAFF involved in ads for candidates for president. Firefighters have also starred in ads on controversial ballot initiatives like the recent fights over collective bargaining and pension issues. Is there any difference between those examples and this ad?
Also, look at this in the light of recent crack downs by some fire departments over what a firefighter can or can’t say via social media. Is it okay for a firefighter to take a political stand that some may not like in a TV ad but not on Facebook? Just some questions to think about as you read and watch this story.
“It was just a no-brainer,” said Dave Lorandeau, a 22-year-old volunteer at the York Village Fire Department. “It’s just we’re a family, and if someone needs you, you’re there for them.”
Lorandeau was joined in the ad by York volunteer firefighters Andrew Shea, Eric Humphrey and Ryan Michel, who is gay and an emergency medical technician. He is also a volunteer firefighter in York.
In the 30-second spot, Michel said he “wondered how a brotherhood so tight like that would be accepting of someone who is gay.”
The ad came about due to a fifth York volunteer firefighter, Matt McTighe, who is gay and is the campaign director of Mainers United for Marriage, which worked to get the gay marriage measure on the ballot.
“When these guys heard I was doing this campaign, they said, ‘Is there anything we can do to be more supportive?’” McTighe said. “They wanted to have my back, the same way I would if they called me any time of the day or night.”
UPDATE: The ACLU made comments about the case of Lt. Alvarado & sent a letter to DC’s Attorney General about the recent demotion and transfer of two battalion chiefs who handled discipline in the firehouse beer incident last year. Read the latest from Andrea Noble at The Washington Times.
NOTE: There also news on another DC Fire & EMS Department story. The latest on”watergate” later this evening.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter in May to law enforcement about interfering with the rights of the press and the public to take pictures and video in public places. A federal appeals court issued a ruling almost a year ago that also makes it pretty clear government officials shouldn’t mess with photographers in places where there isn’t an expectation of privacy. But a DC Fire & EMS Department lieutenant who went public with his complaint about Chief Kenneth Ellerbe’s multiple changes in uniform policy has been suspended and demoted for, among other things, failing to tell a TV crew to stop rolling its cameras during a medical emergency on a public street. Robert Alvarado told a reporter today that he has been found guilty of violating the “Patient Care Bill of Rights”.
If the DC Fire & EMS Department actually expects its firefighters to start asking or telling the press and the public to stop shooting pictures then Chief Ellerbe must want to be in the running for the Minister … or rather Secretary of Information job (AKA National Editor-in-Chief) I nominated Larimer County, Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith for. As you know, I threw my support behind Sheriff Smith for this post when he asked news crews to stop shooting burning homes and then put restrictions on the press in covering the tragic wildfires. But I have to tell you those pesky lawyers like Curt Varone at FireLawBlog.com keep writing that the First Amendment doesn’t mean it’s up to the government to decide “first” what we can and can’t take pictures of. Really? And who knew that HIPAA or the Patient Care Bill of Rights doesn’t trump THE Bill of Rights? How come I didn’t get that memo?
As the interview was taking place on a public sidewalk in front of the fire station, Mr. Spitzer wrote that, “Neither Lt. Alvarado nor anyone else — including Fire Chief Ellerbe, had he been present — had any power to tell Fox News to turn off its cameras.”
Among the other charges brought against Lt. Alvarado, but not ruled on, was a charge based on a department order that had been ruled unconstitutional in a 1990 court case.
The order declared that department employees could not give interviews while on duty without prior written permission from a public affairs officer. In a 1990 lawsuit brought by the firefighters union, the U.S. District Court for the District “found that regulation to be an unconstitutional prior restraint on firefighters’ freedom of speech and prohibited the Department ‘from enforcing [the] regulation in the future,’” Mr. Spitzer wrote.
Robert Alvarado says he was informed that he should have stopped the camera from rolling and then dealt with the patient.
As for Alvarado, he told Fox 5/WTTG-TV reporter Paul Wagner he was also punished for wearing a jacket with the wrong insignia on a cold day at the department’s training academy. Alvarado say he gets six and half weeks off without pay and is demoted to sergeant for both the patient confidentiality and uniform infractions.
You may recall when the whole uniform flap appeared, Alvarado challenged the chief to supply compliant outwear after the many changes in the uniform policy due to Chief Ellerbe’s decision to revert to an older department patch. Alvarado told Wagner that he believes the discipline is retaliation for his previous statements to the reporter about the chief. Here’s an excerpt from a January 21 report:
“I know it looks like a Home Shopping Network display here, but this is what we have gone through,” said Lieutenant Robert Alvarado with Truck 13, showing FOX 5 on a table all of the winter weather gear he has purchased that is now no longer compliant with the uniform policy. “We started out at the end of the year with this t-shirt here and this sweatshirt here and both were an acceptable uniform item. As of January 1st, these items are done, can’t wear them. This jacket as well because it has DCFD on the back, and this is a winter jacket purchased with my own money which makes me clearly identifiable as a member of the department. That’s no longer good.”
According to reporter Wagner, Chief Ellerbe declined to comment for today’s story because Alvarado has the right to appeal.
Left to their own, the news media will continue to show images just like this one with no thought of the damage they are causing. Sheriff Justin Smith knows better. We need to take his plan to the nation.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith is my hero. He’s really showing those nasty news people who’s in charge. This is the guy we need on the national scene to finally get the out of control news media under the control of the government where it belongs.
After the arrogant TV news directors of Denver turned down Sheriff Smith’s request (see our earlier column) and kept showing burning and burned out homes, the man who was elected to be in charge got even (can you believe those insensitive, so called journalists actually showed things burning on the news?). According to an article by AP reporter Dan Elliott posted on Firefighter Nation, the sheriff has now issued brand new restrictions on the press covering wildfires in Northern Colorado. I know what you are saying and I’m with you. Can we even really trust a reporter to tell us what the sheriff is doing?
But if reporter Elliott is accurate (doubtful, considering how those people are), as part of Sheriff Smith’s continuing concern that a homeowner may have his or her privacy violated by seeing their destroyed home in the news before being officially notified, the sheriff is refusing to allow reporters and camera crews into areas they’ve typically had access to at previous wildfires in the region.
America needs Sheriff Smith. Here’s a guy who would make sure that all images of property destroyed by terrorist attack or other intentional act, accident or natural disaster have been properly cleared before being shown to the public. We’ve needed someone like Justin Smith for a long, long time.
With Justin Smith at the helm we would be spared live TV coverage of terrorist attacks or other unfolding disasters.
If he was in charge almost eleven years ago we wouldn’t have had to see any of the images from the attacks of 9-11 live on our TV screens. Sheriff Smith would have made sure access to the area by the reporters and photographers was restricted, and no images were seen until all property owners were officially notified by law enforcement.
When the next earthquake hits Southern California, Smith is the guy who can make certain no crumbling structures are viewed until after all home and building owners have been contacted.
When a jet goes off course and takes down an apartment complex, as it did in Virginia Beach, Virginia earlier this year, Sheriff Smith will see to it that every apartment dweller has heard the news from one of his deputies before even one image hits the airwaves.
The next time a single family home of lightweight construction catches fire and spreads to three or four neighboring homes and melts the siding off four or five others, Sheriff Smith will have the backs of the public. There will be no live TV chopper pictures of the destruction until each homeowner gets the word.
Everyone who lived in these apartments would have been notified first hand before the first image hit the screen if Justin Smith had his way. That’s why need him as our nation’s editor-in-chief.
This arrogance by the press, especially TV news, has gone on far too long. At the Museum of Radio and Television in New York, you can see for yourself, as I have, that as far back as a 1961 wildfire in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles County, that KTLA-TV was showing live helicopter video from its chopper of homes burning. I can assure you no one notified those homeowners before the images were televised. And that’s probably because Justin Smith wasn’t born yet to protect us from this outrageous violation of our privacy and our freedoms.
I know if I were one of those resident in the path of a wildfire I wouldn’t want to know instantly my house burned down via some heartless TV news person doing a live report. No matter how many hours or days it took, it would be much better to be in the dark without such information, until, as the country’s Founding Fathers had intended, the home’s next of kin were properly notified by an elected official.
That’s all changed now. There’s a new sheriff in town. I urge both men who want to occupy The White House come January 21, 2013 to please consider naming Justin Smith as the nation’s first editor-in-chief. It’s time for the President to make sure the news people understand that a free press really means that the people who were elected by the citizens are free to make the rules. A man like Sheriff Smith, whose department also warned of unauthorized Facebook pages about the Colorado fires, could also be the guy to get this whole social media thing under control, with all of these citizens with cameras posting anything they want, whenever they want.
Better yet, this new national post should be a cabinet position with a name that everyone can clearly understand. How about Minister … I mean, Secretary of Information? It has a nice ring to it.
Did you hear the latest from those damn unpatriotic, liberal, Commie sympathizer, whining news media types? You won’t believe this one. You better take a Valium because when you read the details you’re going to want to suspend the First Amendment immediately, if not sooner.
Can you believe while covering this tragic wildfire ravaging parts of Colorado, the TV stations in Denver and beyond dared to show video and pictures of burned out and burning homes?
Those heartless and uncaring ghouls. Actual burning homes where people once lived! I’m serious. They should take away the license of any TV station that does that.
The worst part is the TV stations continued transmitting these pictures after being warned by the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
One of those shocking KDVR-TV images the sheriff doesn’t want you to see. Some folks think the TV station should be sued.
At times the journalistic imperative to deliver news clashed with authorities’ efforts to control the flow of information.
On Monday, the Larimer County Sherriff’s Office issued a request to the media not to show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to homeowners.
Station managers acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue, but turned aside the plea on journalistic grounds.
“While we have deep respect for what Larimer County is asking, at the same time we are hearing from the same community that they want to know,” said Jeff Harris, News Director at 7News. The outpouring of response regarding the station’s extended coverage has been rewarding, he said.
“We certainly understand the emotional nature of those images,” said CBS4 News Director Tim Wieland. “In fact, many news events in our community can be difficult to watch for those who are directly affected. However, while we take care not to show inappropriate images, our job at the end of the day is to cover the news.”
When did the people of Colorado elect Mr. Wieland or Mr. Harris so they could make these decisions about what we should see? Last I looked, Sheriff Justin Smith was chosen by the voters to be in charge.
Come on folks. Freedom of the press does not mean you can just go around shooting pictures and video of news worthy events and put them all over the television and the Internet for just anyone to view. That certainly isn’t what our founding fathers had in mind.
The Larimer County Sheriff Dept needs to sue the hell out of EVERY News Media Station, especially FOX31, due to the fact they they announced they did NOT want any homes being shown (burning or not) on TV due to the fact it would cause emotional distress for the owners of the homes in the fire zone. Mitt Romney should sue FOX31 because the only commercials they’ll show on their station (containing his name) are anti-Romney commercials. I’m even gonna request to be one of Romney’s, and the homeowners Legal Advisory Board. You screwed up FOX31, accept the consequences for your actions.
At least it’s hearteneing to see there are some other patriots who posted and let it be known they agree with Mr. Brown.
To make matter worse, I have also learned there are now Facebook and Twitter accounts about the fires that were not okayed by the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. WTF!
There are no official Facebook or Twitter accounts for the High Park Fire. Any sites that exist are not authorized.
Seriously folks, we can’t be having this. It’s bad enough that the news media think they have the right to provide information to the public that isn’t approved, but now the average citizen is doing this through social media.
If we begin letting just any Joe Schmoe on Facebook, or some schmuck with a blog have their say whenever they want, without authorization, won’t that be the end of our free society? (BTW, someschmuckwithablog.com is one of those sites not authorized by any sheriff and it should be shut down immediately.)
Doesn’t this idea of citizen journalists with their posts, Tweets and blogs go against everything this country has stood for? When will it end?
Since our first year of publishing STATter911.com we have had a variety of postings about cameras at the scene of emergency incidents. With it has been an ongoing conversation with you, our readers, about the ethics, rights and responsibilities of the press, public, victims, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers.
That conversation was bumped to a new level a year ago this month with the video above of a trooper with the Connecticut State Police screaming at a freelance news photographer shooting a fatal car fire from behind a guard rail on I-95. There were 165 comments, many of them from me, as we went back and forth over the actions of the trooper and the man behind the camera. (Click here and scroll down for the comments.)
Many of you, like the trooper, thought the cameraman was a ghoul and I was equally evil for defending him. I asked a lot of questions from those who took the trooper's side and blasted the videographer and me.
I tried to understand what was so offensive about the video. As you look at the raw footage above, the only thing you see is a burning car. As I have asked from the start, since when is shooting a car fire that shuts down a highway taboo?
In fact, maybe something is wrong with me (many of you have said as much), but the only thing I found offensive were the actions of the trooper. Not only was the trooper rude and insensitive to someone doing their job, he overstepped his bounds, acting as an editor or censor of what the public is allowed to see. Many of you made excuses for the trooper and I agreed it is just possible he was having a bad day. As for the videographer, despite all the name calling by our readers, no one pointed to any evidence that he didn't do his job professionally and treat the trooper with respect.
Taking in all of the comments and studying them closely, I came to my own conclusion of what was actually fueling the outrage. Despite what many wrote, this was not about being sensitive to the victim and her family. Though I do think that some of you sincerely believe in your hearts that was the case. I contended then and am even more convinced now (based on what I am about to show you) that most of those defending the trooper are willing to let a uniformed agent of our government decide what's appropriate for us to see, First Amendment be damned, because of a hatred of, or bias against, the press.
I have known for a long time how despised the news media is, but reading the reaction to this video actually made me fear a bit for the future of our country. Even if I strongly disagreed with the actions of the photographer, I wouldn't want the police or any other government agency to be the decider of what we can see in a public place.
Besides the First Amendment issue, I also believe that there is a natural tendency for people to side with the authority figure. He's a cop, so he must be right. I get that, but again respectfully disagree that our government is always right.
So, why am I bringing this up now?
Take a look at the videos below. All have been posted on STATter911.com since October and were widely viewed, prompting many comments. Each one involves fire fatalities or critical injuries. Two videos show firefighters rescuing small children from burning homes. One clip is of a man being pulled from his burning home. Another has scenes of a man who later died collapsed outside a burning hotel. There is one showing firefighters attacking a fire with three bodies still inside. And there is also a video that shows efforts to recover a firefighter who died in the line of duty.
To me, each of these videos is a hell of a lot more graphic than what was shown in the Connecticut car fire video. All of the videos, except two, show victims in cardiac or respiratory arrest being treated by fire and EMS.
Despite the many comments posted with each of the videos, there is no one complaining that these photographers, like the one in Connecticut, are ghouls. We have no one screaming about victims' rights or HIPAA violations. And no one is telling me what a bad man I am for running these videos. Why is that? How can that be?
How can shooting a car fire bring such outrage while showing actual fire victims or being up close and personal at a fatal fire not even bring a squeak?
I believe the answer is pretty simple. In these videos there was no authority figure on the scene, like the police officer in Connecticut, overstepping his or her bounds and fueling the fire and passion against the photographers.
What I attempt to do with every conflict I see or am involved in, is to boil down what it's really about. Despite all of the claims last year of protecting the victim (which I believe those in public safety can do without trampling on our freedoms), I am left with the conclusion that, without someone yelling at a photographer, or reminding us of our hatred of the press, we generally just sit back and watch these videos without a great deal of disgust, anger and outrage. Am I wrong?
Above is the raw video from the camera of WITI-TV photojournalist Clint Fillinger just prior to his arrest Sunday nigh accused of resisting a Milwaukee police officer and obstructing the officer in his duties at the scene of a house fire. On the video, the police sergeant can be heard saying that Fillinger was being moved back for "his safety". At the same time the safety of the members of the public, who like Fillinger, were standing outside the secure area, behind the police yellow tape, is apparently not so important.
The officer was so concerned about the safety of this one man with the camera that he knocked the 68-year-old cameraman to the ground as Fillinger was being shepherded to the end of the block. Fillinger told a reporter for his station that he touched the officer while putting up his hands in a defensive move as the officer came at him while the photographer was walking backwards. I will let you be the judge if the officer's reaction was appropriate. I say this knowing there will be plenty out there who will focus on the fact Fillinger touched the sergeant and that's all anyone needs to know.
The other police officer on the video, also identified as a sergeant, told Fillinger we need you to move back "for their privacy".
Now, let's bring in Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn who was asked by a reporter from WITI-TV to comment on this confrontation. The chief pointed out, since this was the same as a citizen complaint he was limited in what he could say to those facts that everyone has seen on TV. From apparently watching that video the chief made the point, "If the cameraman had simply complied with the instructions to back off from a working fire none of this hullabaloo would be taking place".
But Chief Flynn, couldn't it also be said at this point from just watching the video, if the police officer hadn't targeted an individual for removal from a non-secure area because the person was carrying a camera none of this hullabaloo would be taking place?
The chief did what many will think is an admirable thing by defending his people, taking the side of the sergeant over the cameraman based on the video that's in the public. But isn't Chief Flynn also sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States?
In the defense of the Constitution shouldn't the chief be bringing up some other points and questions that seem reasonable to bring up from just looking at and listening to this video? Things like was that a lawful order of the police officer based on the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals? Why was it so important to aggressively remove this one person from the scene and not anyone else? Just what privacy expectation is there on a public street in Milwaukee? What safety concern was there that only the photographer needed to be sent to the end of the block?
Yes, it's great to support your people chief and to reserve judgment until the investigation is complete. But wouldn't it be nice if you or some other police chief got up there during one of these situations and said something like this?
"I want to make it clear that the job of the police department is to defend the Constitution of the United States. This includes the First Amendment. In reviewing this incident I want to make sure that the rights of this individual carrying a camera were not violated and at the same time try to determine if this order from my officer is consistent with our rules, regulations and procedures and the laws of this state and country. When this investigation is complete I hope to know these answers. In the meantime I can assure you that my officers are aware that it is their duty not to interfere with anyone who is lawfully shooting pictures."
So, tell me Chief Flynn, would it make you or your department look bad if you answered the questions about this incident in that manner? Is that not a more even handed way to reply to something as important as this? Is it considered a sign of weakness for the police to make a clear statement about supporting the First Amendment? Would you be considered any less of a police chief in front of the public or your officers if you answered this way?
In Northeast Washington, the office building at 2120 Bladensburg Road owned by IAFF Local 36 officially became the Kenneth M. Cox Building yesterday. I say officially, because I have thought of it as the Kenneth M. Cox Building for quite a few decades. In my 25 years as a TV reporter it is probably the location I visited most often and the place where I found some of the richest and most interesting stories. And Kenny Cox is largely responsible for that. I would go as far to say that STATter911.com probably would not exist without Kenny. That in itself is an interesting comment considering Kenny usually can't even find the on button to his computer without help.
My friend Kenny Cox is full of such interesting contradictions. As the person who served as an elected official of IAFF Local 36 longer than anyone else (37 years) Kenny has been an extremely important player in the work of the union. But while Kenny's fingerprints were everywhere, he stayed out of the spotlight.
Kenny's ideas and words have been heard by many in speeches and during hearings in the District Building and on Capitol Hill. But those words rarely came out of Kenny's mouth.
In the 1970s Kenny Cox won an extremely important First Amendment case for the union, fighting the punishment he received for criticizing the administration over a fatal fire near the quarters of a company closed due to budget cuts. He spoke to a reporter while on-duty at the scene of the fire. Yet, despite a federal judge confirming his right to speak his mind, the name Kenny Cox was rarely in the newspaper. Kenny was the main point of contact for reporters looking to find out Local 36's view of the world, but he wouldn't let you quote him. I believe my only on-camera interview with Kenny is in the video at the top of this page and it occurred yesterday.
And this quiet and deeply religious man also has an absolutely devilish side that often comes out in his deadpan sense of humor and as an instigator of practical jokes.
While I've been intrigued about all of these interesting aspects of Kenny's personality, the characteristics that meant the most to a young TV reporter hungry for a good story were his honesty, credibility and decency.
If Kenny Cox told me something, I knew I could rely on it. The truth was the truth with Kenny, even when it wasn't the best of news for the union. He knew his credibility was the most important commodity in being an effective advocate for the firefighters of the District of Columbia.
And the many union presidents that passed through during Kenny's tenure also realized the treasure they had in Kenny Cox. As Bill Mould said yesterday during the dedication ceremony, "I often felt like the guy who sits on the ventriloquist's lap". It seemed to be a universal feeling among all of the former union heads, even though there isn't a dummy among them. Still, a cynical ex-reporter wanted to know if Cox drafted their speeches for the event, considering each of them rarely ventured out on union business without Kenny's words in their pockets.
Kenny will be the first to tell you that there are many, many others who helped guide Local 36 through the late 20th and early 21st Century. And there were. But Kenny's ability to work the halls of Congress on both sides of the aisle and at the same time deal with the politics in the District Building was somewhat unique. Especially considering that DC's mayors and council members hated when the union went to Congress to get help on District issues.
One such effort was 30-years-ago when Cox used the influence of a Virginia congressman and others to convince Mayor Marion Barry that firing the recruits of Class 275, who had all just left other jobs to be DC firefighters, was a really bad idea. Four members of that class, all now chief officers of the department, made a special presentation to Kenny.
While younger members may know some of what Kenny Cox has meant to the local, it is unlikely they know much about Kenny as a firefighter. There were quite a few long retired firefighters and officers at the ceremony yesterday who told those stories. Among those was Kenny's close friend, and former lieutenant at Truck 8, Larry Beardmore. Beardmore is from a family of legendary firefighters, including his brothers Tex and Johnny, who I knew very well from my days in Prince George's County.
About five-years-ago I ran across film of a May, 1972 event at the District Building with Mayor Walter Washington. There was no description of the event, but I immediately recognized a young Kenny Cox sitting with a group of firefighters. Another part of the film showed an interview with an officer whose face bore a strong resemblance to the Beardmores I knew. From a story I had heard from Kenny years before about Larry Beardmore grabbing three young children out of a burning apartment building, I figured this must be Truck 8 getting the "Company of the Year" award. I was correct.
While I actually first heard of that amazing rescue and Larry's Gold Medal of Valor while I was in PG in the 70s, I really never knew much about Kenny's role at that fire until I pushed for further details after finding the clip. Kenny and Firefighter Barrett Payne each received Silver Medals for their actions on January 21, 1971 at 4307 3rd Street, SE.
Engine 25 had gone to the address on a local alarm for a bush on fire just after midnight but found fire showing out of a picture window on the first floor and rapidly extending to the the second and third floors. I strongly encourage you to read the entire report (here) written by Larry Beardmore. Here is some of what Larry wrote about Kenny's actions (click the image below to increase its size):
Yesterday Larry and Kenny both described it as a "routine fire" and just laughed at a washed up TV news guy as he tried to elicit something of substance about the incident. But make sure you listen to the few usable words from Beardmore at the end of the video above. They are important.
And since we are talking about family, let's not forget Kenny's high school sweetheart Marti. They will be married 48-years next January. Or his children Ken Jr. and Michelle Lyn and grandchildren Taylor Lyn and Ethan. Michelle, who sings each year at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend, did a moving tribute to her dad during the dedication ceremony.
Despite pushing 70 and a body ravaged by serious spinal issues and Parkinson's Disease, Kenny Cox still works hard on behalf of Local 36.
Kenny didn't want the tribute yesterday and even threatened not to show up. I imagine he will be greatly embarrassed by what I have written here (not that the man who has given Dave Statter more fire department stories than anyone else is likely to read the blog). I say tough.
It is long overdue for Kenny Cox to come out of the shadows and be recognized publicly. I would make the case that not only are DC firefighters much better off for the work of Kenny Cox, but so are the citizens of and visitors to the District of Columbia. When it comes to anything fire related, Kenneth M. Cox is probably more responsible than any chief, union president, firefighter or political leader in ensuring the safety of everyone in the Nation's Capital.
There has been an ongoing discussion in our comments section about my recent postings on the issue of cameras being used by the press and citizens at scenes where there is police, fire or EMS activity. Coincidentally, on Friday, this video surfaced, with the help of the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Mike Blasky. It seems to illustrate many of the points I have been trying to make.
Reading the comments on Law Officer's Facebook page over a similar, but less violent confrontation in Florida and the comments on this site, it is clear there are many first responders who aren't really clear about the freedoms provided by the First Amendment. They believe it is perfectly okay for a police officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic to order someone to shut down a camera when that citizen or member of the press is standing in a public place and shooting something that is in public view. Some believe it is okay for a first responder to make up laws that don't exist and threaten a photographer with arrest or seizure of their camera equipment. All sorts of reasons are used that aren't backed up by any legal authority. They include victims' rights, right to privacy, and claims that shooting a building threatens security. Sometimes it's simply the belief that a camera shooting a first responder doing their jobs interferes with an investigation or operation.
The case of Mitchell Crooks and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer Derek Colling should give pause to those who believe any of those are legitimate reasons to interfere with picture taking when the person has not infiltrated a secure area.
In the raw video (above) from March 20, Officer Colling approached Crooks, who had spent the previous hour shooting video of the arrest of burglary suspects across the street from Crooks' home. Crooks was standing on his own property at the time, even though he initially denied it was his home. Ordered to shut down his camera, Crooks refused. The camera toting citizen was wrestled to the ground, battered and handcuffed by the officer.
As Mike Blasky writes, Crooks initially faced charges of battery on a police officer, had his expensive camera seized and suffered a broken nose and possible broken ribs. But things are now looking very different, thanks to Crooks not shutting off his camera and the right people seeing his video. The charges have been dropped by the Clark County District Attorney, an internal investigation of Officer Colling is underway, Officer Colling has been suspended and Crooks got his camera and video back.
Besides Crooks' claim, at first, that he didn't live where the video was shot, there are a few other side issues in Blasky's article that sure are interesting but in the end may not really be the deciding factor in whether Crooks has the right to use his camera in a public place, unmolested by law enforcement. These include a 2002 video of police that Mitchell Crooks shot that made news in California. In that case the video showed two Inglewood officers beating a 16-year-old boy. Blasky also brings up that Officer Colling has been involved in two fatal shootings that were later ruled justified.
If you really think that you, as a first responder, have the legal right to interfere with such picture taking by the press or the public I urge you to read Blasky's entire article and follow this case closely. My view is that Officer Colling has made his department and police officers in general look pretty bad because of such thinking.
This is why I strongly suggest police, fire and EMS departments teach their people what limited legal authority they have when it comes to cameras in public places and to really understand the rights of the people holding those cameras.
I know the actions of Derek Colling don't represent law enforcement in general. I don't want anyone to get the impression that this site's purpose is now for cop bashing or that I'm anti-police. What I am is pro-First Amendment.
There is a real fear/hatred of the press and cameras in general by some who serve the public. That's their right to feel that way. But this video appears to show when that turns into public officials infringing on the basic rights of others it can quickly get really ugly.
To me, it is typical of SOME of the interactions that occur across the country between the news media and public safety officials. It's an interesting follow-up to my posting last week that looked at the confrontation last December between a Connecticut State trooper and a photographer at the scene of a fatal crash and vehicle fire.
I am very aware we only have one side of this story and we should always be cautious when drawing conclusions. But there are a few things that are clearly said by the sheriff's deputies, including supervisors, that don't need much interpretation and, to my knowledge, go beyond the powers this country gives to law enforcement. These include: ordering a photographer not to take pictures from a certain vantage point because the homeowners don't want their houses shot; deciding when a videographer can and can't roll his camera; telling a photographer he can't take pictures of police officers doing their jobs.
While, in general, I have absolute respect for the job police officers and others in public safety do, I admit my bias in these issues. As a news reporter I was told by many people, including law enforcement, that I couldn't take pictures of something that was in public view while standing in a public place. My bias is that I am very much pro-First Amendment and know that, in the United States, decisions like those aren't to be left in the hands of police officers, firefighters or any other government official. But there are many other countries where people in uniform do make those choices for you.
That said, when asked to make sure that the images of witnesses or undercover officers whose safety may be in jeopardy not be shown, I always cooperated by shooting or editing around those images. Also, when given a legitimate explanation by law enforcement that a case would be jeopardized by information or images being released, my bosses and I cooperated. I saw similar cooperation by the other TV stations in Washington.
But orders to shut off our cameras in a public place were almost always ignored. Often we did that for our own protection. In one case the video evidence showed a police officer was not telling the truth when my colleague, photographer Frank McDermott, was arrested at the scene of a drowning at a Virginia hotel many years ago. When the officer's supervisors saw the video (it was still rolling when the police officer placed the camera in the trunk of the police car following Frank's arrest), the charges were suddenly dropped and the officer found himself in quite a bit of trouble.
Let me close with some interesting words a Statter911.com reader wrote in a comment a few days back about the Connecticut video from December:
I don't like the media, but will defend it just as I will the 2nd Amendment. I still think the trooper was flat out wrong, as were the comments that attempted to justify his actions.
There's a reason the first amendment is first and is followed by the second. If gov't attempts to eliminate the freedom of speech, press, to gather, etc, then we have to fall back on our second amendment rights.
On Thursday, I posted extensive raw video from a tragic fire in Moscow that occurred on October 2, 2007. It was under the headline, "Warning: Videos titled 'Fire with Chaos in Moscow' are quite graphic". The two clips were shot by someone riding with one of the first group of what appear to be firefighters as they arrive on the scene of a burning office building. Bodies are already on the ground and many others are jumping to flee a fire on the fourth floor of the five story building. The fire left nine people (described as students) dead and almost 50 injured.
So far I've received 23 comments. Each describes the same thoughts I had while viewing this very difficult video. These include how lucky we are to have the level of fire protection we do in the U.S. and that this video should be required viewing for any political leader who thinks it is okay to gut fire protection standards (including sprinklers) and funding for fire departments. Others commented on the bravery and ingenuity of the bystanders who worked so hard to save the lives of others. Essentially, readers got out of this what I hoped they would.
But I am surprised by what is missing from the comments. This video showed some people dying. Others as they were critically injured. We are not talking about a video shot at a vantage point some distance from the scene. This is up close and personal. It's quite graphic. There is no electronic masking of the faces or sheets over bodies.
Despite the raw and graphic nature of the clips no one has complained. No STATter911.com readers blasted me for posting the video. No one criticized the photographer for shooting it.
There are some very good arguments for not showing this video. They all raced through my mind as I debated whether to hit the publish button. After posting it, I prepared for the nastygrams. They never arrived.
Contrast this reaction to the outrage directed at a videographer from Connecticut and at me after I posted his video of a fatal crash and car fire on I-95 last December. In that video there's no victim, no body, no one in their final moments on this earth, no blood and no gore. It was just a burning car with firefighters and police doing their jobs at the scene.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, please take a moment to watch the video and review some of the comments. You will find that many people believe the man who shot the burning car is the lowest of the low. Others had a similar opinion of me for posting it and defending the photographer. There are close to 100 comments. The large majority of them extremely negative because someone dared to shoot a burning car where a woman died. The common theme is that we have no right to intrude on someone's final moments by taking pictures of a vehicle in flames. There are also another 50 or 60 comments from me where I reply and challenge each of the critics.
So how does a video with no graphic content generate such outrage, while no one seems to care about a video with close-ups of people taking their dying breaths?
If you read my replies to the comments about the car fire video you'll find the answers. They explain why I really shouldn't be surprised about the lack of passion over the Moscow video.
One of the most significant reasons is this. There is an authority figure in the form of a Connecticut State Trooper in the car fire video. Without warning, he confronts the freelance news photographer, orders him to shut off his camera and leave the scene. The trooper is angry and questions the ethics of the videographer. The cameraman didn't break any laws. He was standing with the general public at a respectable distance, out of the way of first responders. People naturally side with law enforcement, whether the officer is right or wrong. It's human.
But there is something bigger than law enforcement at play here. It's hatred of the press.
Read the comments closely and you'll find the real agenda. People who stand up for our country and its Constitution are willing to gut the First Amendment. Anything goes. Just stop those awful press people from shooting pictures of victims.
Some readers think cameras should be banned from scenes where there is even the potential for victims. Others want police officers and firefighters to be the gatekeepers. They would give first responders the power to decide when and if it is okay to take pictures.
As for me, I am standing firmly by the idea that the founders of our nation didn't want the decision of what can and can't be published left in the hands of armed and uniformed agents of our government.
There may be another factor at work here. The office building fire is in a foreign land and doesn't involve Americans. It's possible that plays into this. I've seen it happen in TV newsrooms where management would never show an uncovered body from a local disaster, but would frequently broadcast bodies from catastrophes overseas.
But I think the foreign factor is minor compared to a law officer putting a member of the press in his place. Without that confrontation no one is talking about the rights of victims or what a ghoul the photographer is.
I don't just base my theories on the Moscow video. Since the December incident in Connecticut I have posted many pictures and videos showing active scenes where people have died. There have been no complaints. They include the picture below that I posted exactly one week after the I-95 story. It doesn't show a burning car that a woman had been removed from before the image was shot. It shows a burning house with six people still inside. All died. It wasn't shot by a member of the press. It was shot by a firefighter. And guess what? There was no outrage.
You may recall our coverage of the National Labor Relations Board ruling in the dispute between Dawnmarie Souza and her former employee American Medcal Response of Connecticut Inc. That case was settled yesterday, the day before the hearing.
The NLRB ruled that Souza’s firing for a Facebook comment about her supervisor was improper. Her remarks were considered protected speech. The NLRB claimed AMR’s rules were overly broad when it came to the Internet and communications between workers. This is the first case in which the NLRB has made this argument about the web.
AMR has agreed to change those rules.
AMR and Dawnmarie Souza are not commenting, but Souza did post a brief comment to STATter911.com when our original posting ran on November 9:
While I have been advised to avoid interviews, I feel obligated to say something. First of all my page is private and I am a medic, not emt. The story has been greatly altered and I can only say please do not judge me until all the facts are out. Thank you.
Souza, a paramedic for AMR in New Haven, posted the comment on her Facebook page on the same day she was suspended from work after refusing her supervisor Frank Filardo’s request to write up a report on a complaint about her performance. Management rejected her request for union representation.
The company did not respond late Monday to a question about whether Souza will be rehired, and had said in the past that her firing was not for her Facebook post, but for “multiple, serious issues.”
In the three years before her firing Souza had missed a lot of work because of treatments and follow-up surgeries for breast cancer. Her illness was not part of the NLRB’s case.
Legal experts have said the Souza-AMR case would be groundbreaking for unionized workers, but would probably not affect the rights of most nonunion workers, who typically are employed “at will,” meaning they can be fired for any reason as long as it does not illegally target them on the basis of race, age or other protected categories.
Super Bowl Sunday and Dave is trying to be relevant with a football tie in. It’s about the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder. A Super Bowl Champion, no doubt. Certainly not his team since he’s owned it. But Snyder himself is a World Champion. Dan Snyder reigns supreme when it comes to uniting an entire city and region against you. And his most recent moves in the fields of public relations and image management give strong indication that the trophy should be Dan’s to keep.
Anyone who has heard me speak in recent years, or ever dealt regularly with Dave Statter the TV reporter, probably knows my views on dealing with a news organization that has published negative stories about you or your organization. I have a simple message: If you are going to complain about news coverage, complain about the facts of the story. Make sure it isn’t really just the bruised ego or hurt feelings of you or your boss doing the talking. Trust me, it’s good advice.
I never had the chance to share those words of wisdom with Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. But even if I did run in those circles, history shows it’s advice Dan probably wouldn’t listen to.
I don’t know how much play this is getting beyond the Beltway, but here in Washington over the last few days you can’t go a couple of minutes without reading or hearing another negative assessment of Dan Snyder. These darts lobbed at Snyder are not about the dismal showing of Washington’s football team. Instead it’s about one of the worst examples of how to deal with negative news that we’ve witnessed in a long time. Pull up a seat, there’s a lot to learn from this master of turning a terrible public image into a horrendous one.
It’s as if Snyder purposely pasted “kick me” signs all over his body. Right now, everyone is obliging and kicking him hard. There’s no end in sight. Often, when a public figure is beaten down like this, at some point they might become a sympathetic figure. I don’t see that happening here. Just read the hundreds of comments attached to the articles I’ve linked to and you will see what I mean.
This latest chapter started on November 19 when Washington City Paper’s Dave McKenna wrote an article called The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder. McKenna is a talented sports columnist who has never been afraid to question authority and the status quo. Snyder’s antics and ethics have long been a favorite topic of McKenna’s.
But the free, alternative paper McKenna works for is not what you would call a major player in the Washington media world. Certainly not something a powerful businessman like Snyder needs to worry about. It’s as if McKenna has been constantly barking away like a wiener dog at the feet of a giant and poweful Great Dane (I would have used Clifford the Big Red Dog here, but comparing Snyder to Clifford might ruin the animated canine’s image for generations of children). This article caused Snyder to do more than just shake off the tiny nuisance and move on. Suddenly Dan Snyder saw McKenna as a pit bull that needed to be euthanized.
Snyder’s plan for handling this was about as subtle and well thought out as the much publicized Redskins’ stadium policy of October and November 2009. That one had security people trashing fan’s signs brought to Fed Ex Field because Dan’s feelings were hurt by a very strong anti-Snyder sentiment following a decade of impulsive, bone head moves in running the team. Management tried unsuccessfully to get the public to swallow the company line that the signs were suddenly a safety issue.
I covered that story and talked to legendary DC sports PR guy Charlie Brotman. Charlie, one of the nicest guys around, and rarely publicly critical of anyone, had some advice for Snyder. Essentially, Charlie told Dan to stop wasting his time by trying to control what people think. These actions were further destroying Syder’s reputation with the public. Instead, Charlie urged Snyder to start reaching out and connecting with the fans. Pretty solid advice.
If it’s advice Dan Snyder heard, he ignored or forgot it by November 2010 when he came up with the plan to deal with McKenna. Instead of contacting the columnist or his editor about what Snyder thought were great factual errors, Dan, always the businessman, went right for the money. The general counsel and COO for the Redskins, David Donovan, wrote a letter to the investment company that owns the parent company that owns the Washington City Paper. Besides listing all of the ways McKenna’s article harmed Snyder, the letter made clear what damage would come to Atalaya Capital Management if this wasn’t dealt with to the satisfaction of the Redskins owner. And it is this portion of the letter, that stands heads above the rest of the Snyder PR circus, and has Washington abuzz. Here it is:
Dan Snyder’s public relations policy may not be a smart one, but it sure gets high marks for consistency. Just like destroying the fan’s signs when they had bad things to say about Dan, Snyder threatens to crush the news media. And this threat to sue has now become reality, again making headlines.
So, why have I spent all of this time on a blog dedicated to fire and EMS talking about the owner of a football team? Because, whether it’s Dan Snyder and the National Football League or a one pumper fire department in the middle of Snyderville, USA (my apologies to the folks of Snyderville, Utah) your image and how you tend to it matters. The mistakes Dan Snyder continually makes on the large scale are often made on the small scale by fire and EMS departments and the people who run them.
These are basic errors. Ones that any crisis management firm or good PR person or PIO would try to avoid. I’m sure Dan Snyder can afford the best in the business. It’s obvious that, like a few public safety bosses I’ve met through the years, Snyder and his ego think they know far better than the PR pros.
Dan Snyder and the Redskins made sure that a relatively little read article blasting the owner got enormous play, not just in Washington, but around the world. So much so that the City Paper’s server crashed on Wednesday. How often have I cautioned about turning a simple one day story into something much bigger?
Remember this: When your public relations policy is based on the fragile ego of a Dan Snyder, a fire chief or a mayor, you will lose every time.
If the reporter or columnist significantly gets the facts wrong, absolutely get out and fix that with the correct facts. This is something quite important in the digital age where information, accurate or inaccurate, is rapidly repeated over and over again on numerous sites. During a radio interview on Thursday, the Redskins COO David Donovan even acknowledged that very point in justifying their offensive against the City Paper saying, “In the Internet age, when something gets published, and it gets linked to and linked to and linked to — and you can go around the Internet and see the number of times people have linked to that column from the November City Paper.” But as the Post’s Dan Steinberg points out, that article is now getting a hell of a lot more links than it did originally (including now on the ever popular STATter911.com) and no one is really correcting any facts.
If the goal is to set the record straight, wouldn’t a better tactic have been to take the Washington City Paper up on its offer to get the facts out in a Dan Snyder penned guest column?
If it’s the opinion of a columnist you want to change, that isn’t going to happen by heavy handed, thuggish threats (which in Snyder’s case illustrates McKenna’s thoughts about the owner much better than what the sports columnist wrote in the first place).
Settling a score by trying to get a reporter or columnist fired just to keep the boss happy rarely works (again, you better have some facts to back it up). The same goes for the often used tactic of freezing out or not talking to a reporter who doesn’t play the way you want them to. All you will do is ensure your message isn’t heard with the coverage provided by that publication.
The short version of the response from Snyder and the Redskins is to argue that McKenna is out to get Snyder, that McKenna attacked Snyder’s wife, a breast cancer survivor and spokeswoman (an unfounded claim against McKenna that absolutely no one can sense of), and that a City Paper picture of Snyder as the devil is antisemitic.
Let me be so bold as to offer Dan Snyder, or even a fire or EMS chief who may be equally as sensitive, a different way to go. You’ve dug yourself a big hole that you are trying desperately to get out of. You have failed to provide any shoring and the walls are coming in. Stop burying yourself further by attacking the news media with nothing to really back it up except your hurt feelings. Ditch the ego. Write an open letter to the public and have a press conference telling everyone you’ve made lots of mistakes through the years, but this one tops them all. Take a lesson from Gene Weingarten and do this with a sense of humor. Make sure that sense of humor is directed at you. Beg for the public’s mercy, telling them you have learned your lesson and will do better in the future. Go the Hollywood route and tell everyone you will be in rehab for a few months. Then find a Betty Ford type clinic for egoholics and control freaks. You will know you have the right building because the doorway is extra tall and wide to enable those oversized heads and egos to enter.
In short, heed the words of my friend and former colleague Brett Haber, “The truth that Snyder fails to grasp is that the only way to stop being portrayed as such an unlikable figure — is to stop acting like one.”
I've had a busy few days trying to answer every critical comment about my posting of the video below. It's the confrontation between a Connecticut State Police trooper and a news photographer that occurred a week ago along I-95 in Fairfield, Connecticut . So far there are 87 comments from readers plus 53 responses from me. At some point soon, after my head stops swimming, I am going to digest my thoughts and write a follow-up column or two about the conversations I've had with the readers of STATter911.com.
My belief, based on what I know about such things, is that a trooper or any other first responder or agent of our government does not have the legal right to tell a citizen or the press what they can and can't shoot in a public place or decide for us what is newsworthy. Based on the comments, those who believe that are in the minority (or maybe I am just part of a silent majority and don't know it?).
One person who thinks I'm right is Dave Levy. I have known Dave since he was a young teenager. I was a friend of his father, the late Sheldon Levy. Sheldon was a long time photojournalist who started Action Movie News in New York before coming to Washington and eventually working with me at Channel 9 beginning in the mid-1980s. Sheldon was also a chief officer at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland.
Dave was a volunteer firefighter for 10-years in Prince George's County. He is now a corporate lawyer (and fire buff) in Chicago. He makes some interesting points in this column.
I know. I know. Save your venom. Yes, I'm very aware that for many of you the only other people you hold in as low esteem as journalists (or a former one like me) are lawyers. That's a given. Let's agree on that now. So, when you comment on what he has to say, just dispute or support David's facts, his logic or his reasoning. We know we are scum to some of you and we accept that.
If you would like for STATter911.com to consider publishing your views on this or other topics please contact me at email@example.com.
A Few Thoughts on Freedom of the Press, Emergency Services, and a Pissed Off Trooper
by Dave Levy
The debate about the Connecticut state trooper tantrum followed a familiar path: Cameraman sets up his equipment at an accident scene. Trooper goes berserk in front of the camera. The footage is posted to the Internet. Some people are upset with the trooper. Others are upset with the cameraman. Debate ensues.
From what I can tell from the comments, the debate followed a path that we've all seen play out once or twice before. Although the comments bore a sense of familiarity, however, there were three interesting points lurking under the surface. The first was a delicious irony, the second was a lesson for the present, and the third was a lesson for the future.
Let's start with the delicious irony. A few months back, this blog posted a video in which a police officer arrested an on-duty fire captain for refusing to reposition a rig. Another post contained a video which showed a police officer choking a paramedic while a heart patient sat in the back of the rig. In each case, a police officer was the aggressor, a member of the fire service was the victim, and the best piece of evidence was provided by a well-placed video camera. In each case, the camera was critical to the fire service's side of the story simply because the police officer's conduct was so over-the-top that any written account of the incident would lack believability. From what I remember, no one in the fire service voiced loud objection to the idea that someone might record a police officer mistreating a member of the fire service.
Before proceeding to the lesson for the present, let me ask a question: In the two examples above, would you feel better if we lived in a country where a police officer could assault a firefighter in public and then use his police power — the power of the government — to prevent a civilian from photographing the event? If you answered "yes," please stop reading, as there is no hope for you. If you answered "no," then you might be interested in what I think is the lesson for the present:
As a firefighter, PM, or police officer, you become an agent of the government from the moment your shift starts until the moment your shift ends.
Being an agent of the government provides a tremendous amount of power. People have to get out your way when you're en route to a call. You're allowed to step behind the yellow tape. You're allowed to break windows and knock down doors. And if someone interferes with your work, they can end up in handcuffs.
Although the government can only work through its agents, and those agents are human beings, those human beings are not allowed to be emotional and be agents of the government at the same time. In other words, if you're going to be an agent of the government, you have to keep your emotions in check, at least when you're in public.
This brings us to the unfortunate incident involving the state trooper. Simply put, however good the trooper's intentions were, an agent of the government (the trooper) does not have the Constitutional power to tell a private citizen (the cameraman) who is standing on a public street what he can and cannot photograph. That is the heart of the First Amendment. It is what separates the United States government from the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian governments. Our government already exercises too much control over our day-to-day affairs. Giving government agents the right to tell a private citizen who is standing on a public street what types of newsworthy events – whether a car accident or a police officer choking a medic or locking up a fire captain — can and cannot be photographed should make peoples' hair stand on end. If you don't believe me, then visit one of the Chinese state-run news outlets – such as http://www.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/index.htm — and take a good long look at what the news looks like when the government gets to decide what its people can and cannot see. I don't read the Chinese news very often, but when I do, I count my lucky stars that I was born an American.
All of this leads to what I think is the lesson for the future: What do you do if you're on a call and a photographer is doing something that is lawful but offensive? As I see it, you have three options:
OPTION 1: You can obstruct the photographer's view by parking a rig or constructing a tarp between the camera and the part of the scene that is giving you trouble. The photographer can still get a picture that helps document the scene, the public gets to know what's going on, and you (the agent of the government) are happy. (As an aside, this strategy does not work well when someone is trying to conceal misconduct. If the police had tried this in the incidents that I used in my example, the cover up would have been worse than the underlying misconduct, and the s*** would have really hit the fan. The extent to which a free press can curb government abuse is amazing.)
OPTION 2: You can move the yellow tape back and keep ALL civilians (not just the media) behind the tape. This can be difficult at times, but is usually do-able.
OPTION 3: You can wait until you're off duty and then express your views in whatever way you see fit (consistent with other legal requirements). For example, you can: (i) start your own anti-media blog (I'm sure Statter will post a link); (ii) post an anti-media YouTube rant and hope it goes viral; (iii) complain to the TV station, picket in front of the TV station, etc. You can even make it your business to buff calls in your off-duty time and stand in front of any cameraman who is taking pictures that you might find offensive. This is a free country, and there is absolutely no crime in that, so long as you do it in your personal capacity and not in your capacity as a government agent.
I hesitate to make this statement in front of a crowd like this, but it seems appropriate to note that freedom is so incredibly precious precisely because it is so incredibly costly in every measurable way. That is what led Winston Churchill to quip that democracy is the worst political system on the planet, except for all the others. Whether you like it or not, our system of freedom relies on a number of key institutions, one of which is a free press.
I have often said it is never a real good idea to confront someone who has a video camera in hand. Especially these days. The video above is an excerpt from the longer video below and illustrates my point.
From the :47 video above you don't get much context about what set off this confrontation. But the 2:54 video below seems to indicate not all that much. Obviously there may be something even earlier that we are missing.
I am really not sure what there is to gain here for the Connecticut State Police. If troopers find it necessary to clear news photographers to secure evidence or for safety reasons, isn't there a better way to do it?
You personally may not like the idea of a free press, but I am reasonably certain that wearing a uniform in our country doesn't make you the arbiter of what is okay to shoot and what isn't. I have a recollection of learning that in grade school, but it is so long ago and so much has happened since then that I could be wrong. If it has changed, please forward me the updates that I've missed. I really have some catching up to do.
No matter what else happened before or after this video, we are left with these images on YouTube and a major newspaper's web site. Trying to step back and be objective in this case (some may question if I can considering my checkered past as a TV reporter), this is how I assess the video:
A photographer doing his job in an apparently professional manner. He keeps his distance. Does not appear to be in a particularly dangerous spot and does not interfere with the important operation at hand. The trooper, on the other hand, appears to confront the photographer and the public by losing his cool in a very unprofessional manner.
It's just a reminder that the person with the camera usually wins in these situations and your organization's image is the loser.
I will leave you with this question that was posted with the YouTube video. It's probably a good one to think about: "If the trooper acted this way knowing the camera was rolling how does he act when no cameras are around???"
But then again, maybe he was just having a bad day.
In our recent discussions about first responders and social media I had cautioned that chiefs need to make sure that their policies to address these issues aren’t infringing on the rights of their employees. Here’s a good reason why. The New York Times reported yesterday the National Labor Relations Board is accusing an ambulance company of illegally firing an employee who used Facebook to criticize a boss. Labor lawyers consider this a ground-breaking case because, for the first time, the ”board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.”
The complaint is against American Medical Response of Connecticut. While it doesn’t involve patient confidentiality, to me, the most interesting part is that NLRB is saying rights already established extend to Facebook or other social media. While I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV (these days I don’t play anything on TV) you have to wonder how policies already established and those being considered will hold up not just in the labor arena, but also in the area of protected speech in general.
I think back to at least three freedom of speech lawsuits the District of Columbia was on the losing end of toward the end of the last century. The oldest one is a 1970s case where Firefighter Kenny Cox was disciplined for criticizing the department’s rotating closure policy while on duty talking to a reporter at the scene of a fatal fire. DC firefighters, with the help of IAFF Local 36 and the American Civil Liberties Union, also prevailed in cases where chiefs punished them for a political cartoon posted at a firehouse and for doing a TV interview, off duty, about inadequate supplies for infectious disease control.
So, can a chief completely ban the use of social media while on duty? Can the chief limit what a first responder writes on Facebook while off duty? Are their parallels between what the NLRB is saying from a labor standpoint and previous rulings about First Amendment rights?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but these are things I do think about and hope you are too.
Lafe Solomon, the board’s acting general counsel, said, “This is a fairly straightforward case under the National Labor Relations Act — whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions, in this case about their supervisor, and they have a right to do that.”
The labor board said the company’s Facebook rule was “overly broad” and improperly limited employees’ rights to discuss working conditions among themselves.
Moreover, the board faulted another company policy, one prohibiting employees from making “disparaging” or “discriminatory” “comments when discussing the company or the employee’s superiors” and “co-workers.”
The board’s complaint prompted Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a law firm with a large labor and employment practice representing hundreds of companies, to send a “lawflash” advisory on Monday to its clients, saying, “All private sector employers should take note,” regardless “of whether their work force is represented by a union.”
The firm added, “Employers should review their Internet and social media policies to determine whether they are susceptible to an allegation that the policy would ‘reasonably tend to chill employees’ ” in the exercise of their rights to discuss wages, working conditions and unionization.
American Medical Response of Connecticut denied the labor board’s allegations, saying they were without merit. “The employee in question was discharged based on multiple, serious complaints about her behavior,” the company said in a statement. “The employee was also held accountable for negative personal attacks against a co-worker posted publicly on Facebook. The company believes that the offensive statements made against the co-workers were not concerted activity protected under federal law.”