Friday, May 29, 2009

Camera-shy cops target photographers

It's been called the "Robert Dziekanski syndrome." After the killing of the Polish immigrant was captured on video and flashed around the world, giving the lie to official RCMP statements about the incident, police seem to be reacting more aggressively to being filmed during the performance of their duties.

In Winnipeg, just a few weeks after the Dziekanski video, a CBC cameraman had his camera seized and was formally charged with obstruction for filming an incident in a public place. That same month--December, 2007--Vancouver police detained Channel M videographer Ricky Tong, demanding that he give up his tape.

This past April, Vancouver police officers took down Vancouver Province reporter Jason Payne, threatened him with arrest, and confiscated his camera. The resulting outcry forced an apology from police chief Jim Chu. A month earlier, a witness to a fatal police shooting, Adam Smolcic, alleged that police grabbed his cellphone and deleted images before handing it back to him.

Not that this began, of course, with the Dziekanski video. A New Brunswick blogger was arrested in June, 2006 during a protest he was covering at the NB legislature. His camera was taken away, and images were erased by the Saint John police. The cops' Swiss-cheese defence can be seen in all its glory here. Bogus charges of "obstruction" against the blogger, Charles LeBlanc, were dismissed, partly because a CBC cameraman caught the incident on camera, and the tape contradicted police testimony.

And who can forget the sadistic RCMP Staff Sergeant Hugh Stewart, hosing down peaceful protesters--and a CBC cameraman--during the APEC protests back in 1997? (In the natural course of events, "Sergeant Pepper" was promoted by the RCMP, and has recently been brought out of retirement to run RCMP security planning for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Heaven help us.)

Nevertheless, these incidents appear to be taking place with more frequency of late. This past Wednesday in Ottawa, a protest was held at Lansdowne Park against an arms bazaar sponsored by CANSEC. Members of the Ottawa Witness Group, a civic volunteer organization that observes protest events in the national capital, were on hand, taking notes and filming. The OWG has been around since 2002, coming into being a few months after police misbehaviour during the G-20 protests in November, 2001. Members work in pairs, and wear distinctive purple T-shirts.

At one point during the CANSEC protest, police turned aggressive. And, as the short video above demonstrates, they were none too happy about being recorded. Note that the first person deliberately pepper-sprayed by an officer is a member of the OWG, his T-shirt clearly visible. He had been moving forward to record a police takedown but was at some distance from it. The police officer rushes forward to spray him in the face, and then turns his attention to two other protesters.

At this point it seems that, if we are to be protected through public exposure against police excesses on the street, even camerapersons need camerapersons. In this case, the other photographer wasn't spotted by the cops. There has been no word as yet of any action to be taken in response to this latest example of police camera-shyness.

[Disclosure: I am a member of the OWG, although I was not present on the day in question. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and not necessarily those of the OWG. --DD]

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