Mike Littwin: The dangers cops face every day don’t include a reporter wielding an iPhone
Fair and unbalanced
As you may have heard, Indy editor Susan Greene was handcuffed and detained by two Denver cops Thursday in front of the state Capitol for — and I can’t emphasize this enough — simply trying to do her job and for nothing more.
It’s an outrage, of course. This standoff between cop and reporter is not a product of the Trumpian fake news era, by the way. This is the product of a longstanding police issue with what we’ll call transparency and which long predates Donald Trump.
But if you read the comments on Greene’s column — a column that went viral because the First Amendment apparently still means something in America — you’ll see the national divide being played out in its usual, ugly form. Greene, many of the commenters complained, was whining, she was disrespectful, she was a cop-hater, she was out to exploit the man held by the police, she was a purveyor of fake news. If you read carefully, you could almost hear those at a Trump rally cheering the commenters on.
Evidence for what had happened with the man — cuffed, naked except for a smallish towel — and what happened to Greene for investigating the incident should be available from the cop-cams that police officers wear. We’ll see. To this point, the police have refused to release the evidence to The Indy. In the days of #blacklivesmatter, more and more police across the country are wearing cameras, but we’ve also seen how often the cameras are somehow turned off when the situation grows dicey.
Greene was driving down Colfax Avenue and saw a group of cops surrounding a man sitting on the sidewalk, with just a cloth covering the parts that, by law, needed to be covered. It looked, well, potentially dicey. As a reporter who writes often and well on social justice issues and especially criminal justice issues, she pulled over to find out what was going on. Among other things, she wanted to know why the police had not covered up the man sitting exposed on the sidewalk.
This is what reporters do. Meanwhile, what police often do when confronted with nosy civilians or nosy reporters is to try to shoo them away and try to shut them down. Any reporter can tell you of such confrontations. I can’t say how many I’ve had, but I can say that none of them ended with me in cuffs. These cops crossed a line this time that must never be crossed.
Greene was taking pictures with her smart phone. The police told her she couldn’t. She explained it was a public sidewalk and that, according to the Supreme Court’s reading of the First Amendment, she can take all the pictures she wants in a public place. One cop then said — and this was amazing both in its ignorance of the law and, I’ll concede, in its speed of reply — that she was violating Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rules by taking photos of a mostly naked guy.
The cop was wrong, of course, in about a half-dozen ways — HIPAA rules? Seriously? He could have made a better case for spitting on the sidewalk. That didn’t stop him from detaining Greene for obstruction, slapping on the cuffs, roughly twisting her arm while insisting she was resisting the officers and advising her to act more ladylike. For the record, and in what should be obvious to anyone, Greene wasn’t interested in photos of the man in question or anything that would invade his privacy. She wanted photos of the police surrounding the naked guy. And that was the issue.
This is no story of cops facing danger, as they too often do. This is no story of split-second judgment in which mistakes are inevitably made. This was the story of a reporter doing her job and cops going to extraordinary measures to prevent her from doing her job, which, they should know, is protected both by the Constitution and by state law.
The police defended their actions by saying the man in question was “in crisis” and that they were awaiting medical help. The man was not arrested. He was taken to a hospital, from which he has been released. What this explanation doesn’t do is explain how Greene ended up in cuffs in the back of a police car.
It’s no secret that news-gathering institutions are under assault. Days after five reporters were killed at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, Trump was in North Dakota at a political rally and, predictably, back on his fake-news kick. We journalists are not alone, of course. Trump also insulted a dying John McCain, a frail 93-year-old George H.W. Bush, and Maxine Waters’ supposedly low IQ.
In Denver, the story is different. We know of the needless deaths of men in police custody who have mental issues, maybe issues not so different from the man Greene saw on the sidewalk. We know of these stories because Greene has been at the center in covering them. Most of the officers involved have been lightly reprimanded despite the evidence uncovered by Greene and other reporters, the same evidence that has led to millions of dollars in settlements with the families of those who died.
It’s something in that history that led Greene to pull over. It’s something in that history that led Greene to be cuffed.
It’s something in that history that is prompting the Denver police to launch an internal investigation of the matter.
It is something — no, everything — in that history that should worry every Denver resident.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for Colorado Independent.com.
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