Wick Communications

Arguing with the badge

In First Amendment on June 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm
The fire in Princeton, Calif. Charles Russo / Review

The fire in Princeton, Calif. Charles Russo / Review

We had quite an afternoon here in Half Moon Bay. First we saw a tweet about a grass fire up the road. If we had missed the tweet, we would have surely heard the sirens. It was one of those calls that fills the air with the shrill sound of sirens. Reporters Mark Noack and Mark Foyer, and photographer Charlie Russo, were barely back from that assignment when the California Highway Patrol flashed “School bus crash” across its online dispatch feed.

Thankfully, neither potential calamity turned out to be much, but both required quick work and the staff was all over it.

Actually we had a bit of a problem getting to the fire. There was a potential and literal roadblock on the only road leading to the scene in the form of a San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy who was stopping traffic.

California law – specifically, California Penal Code 409.5 – expressly allows reporters access to fire, flood, earthquake and other natural disaster scenes. The small print calls for accreditation of some kind and courts have ruled that business cards, press passes and other evidence you work for a newspaper is good enough.

But this time the deputy on scene didn’t see it that way. Noack had his press pass, complete with publisher’s signature and mug shot, so he was waved through. The deputy said Foyer’s business card wasn’t good enough. Foyer stayed behind. …

Now, here’s where things could have gone south. Foyer could have argued the point. He knew time was crucial as we were pushing news on social media just as soon as we could get it and folks were mighty curious about all that smoke in the vicinity of a super-secret Air Force installation. The cop, meanwhile, was just trying to do his job. Furthermore, he could certainly argue that the business card wasn’t adequate credentials.

The reporters on the scene diffused the situation by doing exactly the right thing. They obeyed the order and we were able to cover the situation. When they returned they told their editor about the problem. We reviewed the law and the somewhat confusing wording regarding credentialing and decided it would be a good idea to send the local constables a reminder of the law and our role in spreading accurate information to a populace that is hungry for it in those situations.

Now, if Foyer had been our only man on scene, we might have been in a pinch. In that case, I have counseled him to ask to speak to a supervisor and to tell me about the problem. I might have been able to talk to someone back at the Sheriff’s Office who could have reached his man on scene and instructed the deputy to let a reporter pass.

One thing that rarely works is arguing with the guy with the badge and the gun. Emotions can run high on a scene like that. It is my experience that bickering with a cop generally doesn’t get you what you want.

Know the law. Be professional. Seek help if you need it.

Clay

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