Suit claims police harass journalists and bystanders
Associated Press Reporting
New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of unlawfully arresting or harassing journalists and bystanders who tape or photograph them in public, a lawyer for two men suing the city told a federal jury Monday.
A lawsuit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, claims police officers violated the constitutional rights of plaintiffs Greg Griffith and Noah Learned, who were arrested at a 2007 Carnival parade.
The plaintiffs cite 11 other incidents since 2005 in which people were arrested or allegedly threatened while videotaping, photographing or merely observing police officers. The list of potential plaintiffs' witnesses includes Times-Picayune city editor Gordon Russell and Associated Press Television News producer Rich Matthews.
"It is a widely accepted and established custom for police officers to arrest or threaten people for filming them," said Brittany Barrient, a student attorney from the Tulane Law Clinic who represents Griffith and Learned.
The city's lawyers say Griffith and Learned were interfering with officers breaking up a fight along the parade route. Both men were arrested and charged with crossing a police cordon, but the charges were dismissed about two months later.
James Mullaly, city attorney, said the case isn't a "referendum" on the New Orleans Police Department.
"This case is about choices, and it's about choices that the plaintiffs made on the night of Feb. 18, 2007," Mullaly said during the trial's opening statements Monday. "They went out there to harass, annoy and interfere with law enforcement."
New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley and two officers who arrested the plaintiffs - D'Meecko Hughes and Brian Harrison - are named as defendants.
Griffith, a student at Kent State University in Ohio, has been arrested three times since he came to New Orleans to volunteer in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Griffith claims police officers knocked a camera out of his hand and arrested him in November 2005 after he started filming officers questioning a group of young men outside a health clinic where he worked. He also was arrested in 2006 after he pointed a camera at officers when one of them allegedly pushed a man to the ground along a parade route.
While students at Kent State, Griffith and Learned co-founded a "Cop Watch" program designed to "monitor police activity in public in order to deter misconduct," according to a court filing.
Griffith defended his taping of police officers, a practice that a city attorney called his "hobby."
"I think, as a citizen, it's my right to do so, so I do it," he said.
Griffith said he hurt his shoulder and cut his face when a police officer tackled him along the 2007 parade route. Jurors saw the footage that Griffith taped that night with a digital camera. He claims the video had been erased from his camera before police returned it to him, but a computer technician recovered it.
The trial, which is expected to last about three days, could include testimony from the following witnesses:
- Russell, who was a Times-Picayune reporter covering the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 when he and a New York Times photographer encountered a group of police officers at the scene of an apparent shoot-out. When the photographer started taking pictures, officers allegedly aimed their weapons at the journalists and pushed them up against a wall.
- Matthews, whose APTN crew filmed a man's arrest and beating in the French Quarter several weeks after Katrina. An officer ordered the crew to stop filming, then pushed Matthews up against a car and yelled at him after he showed him his press credentials.
- Kimberly Roberts, a musician and filmmaker whose Katrina experiences are depicted in a documentary, "Trouble the Water." One of the scenes depicted in the film includes an encounter with police in which an officer grabbed Roberts' arm as she filmed them.
- Richard Webster, a reporter for New Orleans City Business who took pictures of two officers confronting volunteer doctors in a park in the city's Marigny neighborhood. Police officers ordered Webster to delete his photos and forced him out of the park, according to plaintiffs' lawyers.
The trial opened less than a week after a former New Orleans police officer, Jeffrey Lehrmann, pleaded guilty to helping cover up the deadly shooting of unarmed residents after Katrina. The FBI and Justice Department are probing several shootings involving police officers after the storm.