By Ben Suazo, Assistant News Editor
Graduate Fran Berkman had already finished his internship with the Long Island Herald when he was offered one more rare opportunity: a tour of the Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility, a large Hempstead power plant visible to hundreds of drivers daily on the Meadowbrook State Parkway by its tall, concrete smokestack.
For Berkman, the tour was a chance to add a photo essay to his work with Journalism Professor Daniel van Benthuysen. After a successful tour inside Covanta, he thought some external photography would add to his project.
"I was taking pictures, and a security officer came out and asked what I was doing," Berkman said. "I explained I was taking pictures for a student project. He took my ID and wrote down my info, and when I asked if he wanted to see the photos, he told me that wouldn't be necessary."
The guard had come out from the neighboring Federal Aviation Administration, and when the guard left Berkman returned to his photos, thinking that his trouble was over. But then Nassau County police officers drove up and told him to put his hands on the hood of their car. Their aggression caught him by surprise.
Berkman's run-in with the law in August became the kick-off for discussion in a Wednesday night panel, "Police and Photojournalism: Why Can't We Just Get Along?" Van Benthuysen hosted the panel, alluding to his student's experience as the panelists explored the relationship between the press and the law.
"[The press] have a perception of the way things happen, and we have a perception of the way things happen," said Detective Lieutenant Kevin Smith, who joined the NCPD in 1984. Smith now trains cadets and officers about behaving professionally in front of the media. "New recruits go through an hour and a half with me. They learn what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."
Berkman was not arrested and his camera was not tampered with in the August incident. However, he did feel that the officer offended his dignity.
"I [asked], is taking pictures against the law? ‘Absolutely it is,' he said. I said next time I'll be more careful—he said, ‘next time you'll be arrested,'" Berkman recalled. "I understand [heightened security] in this day and age. The guy was rude and he went overboard. He should treat people with respect."
The panel considered the limitations of a press pass for preventing conflicts such as Berkman's. Smith reminded students the pass is primarily a tool for identification.
David Pokress, President of the NY Press Photographers Association, agreed with many of Smith's points about a journalist's boundaries in police work.
"Public access equals media access," said Pokress, acknowledging that reporters don't have special rights. Pokress responded sympathetically to one student's anecdote of being antagonized by a Hempstead terminal security officer, who she said would not permit photographs without MTA permission even though she was on a public sidewalk.
"My approach is, I announce my presence before I take any photos and then I take it from there," Pokress said. "[The guard] was probably somebody who didn't know the limit of his authority."
The panel also dealt with reporters' responsibilities in police investigations. Newsday Staff Writer Bill Bleyer advocated caution: "if you get in this situation where you're volunteering information...you're going to look like an extension of the law enforcement. If you're too cooperative you're going to screw yourself and your organization."
In the case of a crime scene, Smith reminded the student audience that a direct order from a police officer should be obeyed. Each of his points asserted that the police act to protect people. If officers are ever unprofessional, it doesn't mean they are trying to hurt reporters' careers: "It takes time to come down from a high stress situation."
Overall, the panel advocated treating police and reporters as imperfect human beings.
"What I want people to take away is that, basically, police officers have emotions as well," said Smith. "There are emotionally-charged situations when police officers can get protective...[in a violent case] they develop dignity for the people who have died."
Hofstra Graduate Fran Berkman is Co-Managing Editor of the Long Island Report, a student-run news organization that covers local New York news.
Follow Berkman at http://longislandreport.org/