Wick Communications

Standoff in Pierre

In First Amendment on November 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm

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David Rookhuyzen was minding his own business in the Pierre Capital Journal newsroom last Thursday when the regular scanner chirp became more insistent. Cops had a guy barricaded in a local residence. They were evacuating the area. A half-dozen law enforcement agencies were en route, including the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the FBI.

You didn’t have to be Carl Bernstein to know something was afoot on the 1000 block of North Euclid Avenue in Pierre that day.

So he took off to the scene, then he took out his phone. From a safe distance, he began tweeting about what he was witnessing. He saw ambulances arrive. He heard a succession of loud booms. Somewhere in there, an officer was shot. He sent about 30 tweets in all. Then Police Chief Bob Granpre asked him to stop.

Somehow, in the midst of a tense scene, Granpre found out a Capital Journal reporter was tweeting. He called a local radio reporter, who handed the phone to David. …

“I don’t think he said ‘please,’ but it wasn’t an order,” David recalled a day later. Out of an abundance of caution and in deference to the chief, who said his officers could be put in danger as a result of the communications, David stopped tweeting from the scene.

Police eventually arrested 27-year-old Jason Todd Garreaux. In addition to holding officers at bay that day, he was wanted in connection with a shooting a day earlier.

I told David that I would have likely made the very same call. The last thing you want to do is put a police officer or anyone else at risk. If the chief were to tell me my actions were dangerous, I’d be likely to stop. I also told David that I really appreciated his innovation.

“It was our first time live-tweeting an event and I think it was the police department’s first time dealing with it,” he said.

So. In the clear light of day, what do you think? In the future, should we automatically stop tweeting or otherwise sending updates from an active scene merely because someone with a badge asks us to do so?

First and foremost, don’t put anyone at risk: The call for immediacy is not so urgent that you must report, in real time, strategic police location and the like. When in doubt, obey police commands and consult with editors on how to proceed.

Understand law enforcement concerns: I told David I could understand why the chief wouldn’t want him tweeting that the SWAT team was approaching the back door, say, or relaying scanner traffic, as some did in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Get the news and sift through it later: Even if law enforcement asks you not to take that photo or tweet from this event, you can gather that information and photography for editors to consider later. Don’t let concerns in the heat of the moment preclude you from gathering information in a newsworthy situation.

Let cooler heads prevail. Usually confrontation between reporters and cops could be avoided if the concerns were taken up the ladder. If confronted by a deputy on the scene, clearly identify yourself as a reporter and ask to speak with the supervisor on scene. If that doesn’t work, call your editor and ask her to get in contact with a supervisor back at the station. Remind police that everyone is a reporter now. Just because they keep the guy with the press pass from tweeting, that won’t stop the other tweeters in the neighborhood.

In retrospect, there was probably no cause for concern with David’s tweets. I think he did the right thing at the scene. He and editor Lance Nixon are talking about having the chief in to discuss the role of Twitter at such scenes. That is a wonderful idea.

Here’s another thing David and the newspaper did right. When it was all over, they asked Twitter followers what they thought of the newspaper voluntarily ending tweets from the scene. The Rapid City, S.D., police responded, as did a number of people in the community, most of whom acknowledged that it was a tough call.

I can almost guarantee that you will face a situation like this in the near future. Best to think about this stuff now.

Clay

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