Monday, December 19, 2011

Inside Gothamist's Absurd Struggle To Get NYPD Press Passes

Note: I was, with my lawyer, Norman Siegel, who question, why the NYCPD a highly visible city agency determined "who is a journalist and who is not." My question is: Where was GOTHAMIST when we brought the suit questioning the NYPD's violation of the First Amendment.

Rafael Martínez Alequín

201107_kelly.jpg
Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and District Attorney Cy Vance (nycmayorsoffice's flickr).

(Part 2 in an ongoing, Kafkaesque series...)

Recent reports have suggested that the relationship between New York City's most prominent media outlets and the NYPD has deteriorated in the past few months. Welcome to our world. In the eight years since the website was founded, Gothamist has applied for press credentials three times from the NYPD's press relations office (called the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, or DCPI). Each time we've been roundly rejected, most recently last week.

The denial represents the beginning of the end of a process that has lasted nearly four months. Only five of the ten articles that I formally submitted to the NYPD press office were deemed to be sufficient according to the DCPI's eligibility requirements—or that's what we're forced to assume given the decidedly vague language of the rejection letter itself. My publisher, Jake Dobkin, also saw his application denied as a photographer, and his letter stated only one of his clips made the cut. (He's been trying to get one for Gothamist since 2004). You can view my ten articles and his six, along with both rejection letters below.

Why get a press card in the first place? "There are times when they are certainly helpful or necessary," one credentialed reporter who works for a major New York City publication tells us. "I had to go to some Homeland Security event—the Port Authority cops saw my credentials and they let me in." Other barriers that are helpfully lifted: "Getting into City Hall is a pain in the ass, but with credentials they let you right in…Courthouses: if you go to the courthouse in Brooklyn at 320 Jay Street, they honor those and usher you in." And they helped some journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street protesters who marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge in October.

The reporter, who has over 10 years of experience in New York City but did not have permission from his publication to speak on record, tells us he knew a credentialed photographer on the Brooklyn Bridge when over 700 people were about to be arrested: "He and a few others could move over to the side as he photographed the arrests. Now that situation is where the credentials worked perfectly." Other journalists who remained on the bridge that day and did not possess press credentials were arrested. "I think that's pretty significant," the reporter says.

A lawsuit filed against the NYPD in 2008 and settled in 2009 was supposed to make the procedure for obtaining a press pass transparent and available to websites and other non-traditional news outlets. The civil rights attorney who won the settlement, Norman Siegel, explains what his win meant: "We were successful in establishing the fact that bloggers—people using the internet—that they were 21st century journalists." Three online journalists received press passes as an immediate result. According to DCPI's website, these are the current requirements for obtaining NYPD press credentials, that resulted from the settlement:

Applicants must be a member of the media who covers, in person, emergency, spot or breaking news events and/or public events of a non-emergency nature, where police, fire lines or other restrictions, limitations, or barriers established by the City of New York have been set up for security or crowd control purposes, within the City of New York; or covers, in person, events sponsored by the City of New York which are open to members of the press.

Applicants also must submit one or more articles, commentaries, books, photographs, videos, films or audios published or broadcast within the twenty-four (24) months immediately preceding the Press Card application, sufficient to show that the applicant covered in person six (6) or more events occurring on separate days.

After a few months of regularly covering spot-news, I had become used to the puzzled looks and occasional outright hostility that I elicited by approaching the police and other officials without a press pass around my neck. I felt honored to be quizzed by a veteran Daily News crime reporter when he found out who my employer was ("Those guys pay you?"). But I still had yet to attend one of the mayor's press conferences, cover anything in City Hall or in a courtroom. And after all, the requirements seemed so reasonable. "I've been doing this for long enough," I naïvely thought to myself. "How could they reject me?"

121511DCPI3.jpg
Christopher Robbins / Gothamist
For Gothamist, it took longer to get in touch with the officer in charge of reviewing applications, Detective Gina Sarubbi, than it took to have our applications reviewed and rejected. For over a month, starting at the beginning of September 2011, I inundated the DCPI office with phone calls asking to speak to Detective Sarubbi, and each time I was told she was out or not available. We began to question whether Detective Sarubbi even existed—maybe she was Keyser Söze? Viane Delgado? Emails—some long-winded, some brief, all polite—sent to the email address I was given went unanswered. One phone call with a DCPI officer proved prescient:

"All I'm saying is that If I were you," the officer said, "I would ramp up your efforts a little."

"What does that mean?"

"It means ramp them up, OK? I'll give her the message. Goodbye."

After more than a month had passed without ever being acknowledged by Detective Sarubbi, Mr. Siegel contacted a city attorney. The next day I spoke with a different officer, who gave me an appointment. We were told that Sarubbi claimed she had never heard of our inquiries.

"The NYPD is a quasi-military operation," Siegel says. "My experience is that most city agencies don't like anyone looking over their shoulder and potentially criticizing them, especially law enforcement. And it could be a reluctance to be transparent within their own agency." The veteran reporter I spoke with on background concurred: "They want to be completely in charge and control the flow of information." Peter Bekker, consulting director at The New York Press Club, says his organization "Has for many years been very concerned with what is a decline in the spirit of cooperation between news organizations and the NYPD when it comes to helping the press understand the stories they're reporting. That's DCPI's job, as I understand it."

Ben Fried, editor of Streetsblog NYC, part of a network of transportation websites aimed at covering "the movement to transform our cities by reducing dependence on private automobiles," tells us he and another reporter received credentials. "It wasn't quick but we scheduled an appointment, several weeks later we went down to One Police Plaza with our forms and clips, and a few weeks after that we got the creds," Fried wrote via email. "Streetsblog is generally pretty critical of NYPD, so that was a relief."

121511DCPI2.jpg
Christopher Robbins / Gothamist
"And you attended all these events in person?" asked Detective Sarubbi when I finally received an audience with her, on November 1st on the 13th Floor of One Police Plaza. DCPI headquarters resembled a sort of municipalized version of The Office. Grey cubicles separated the officers, most of whom were on the phone, and an identical city calendar was pinned to the wall of each one. I took care not to bump into anyone's sidearm on the crowded elevator ride up. Detective Sarubbi was confirming that I in fact reported on the clips I had given her myself.

"Yes," I replied. She looked up from my papers. "Oh I know you, you call on the weekends all the time." While it was true that I worked weekends, and usually called DCPI several times a shift, I had never spoken to her before in my life. Every DCPI officer identifies themselves by name when answering the phone, and Sarubbi was one I wouldn't have forgotten.

After taking my photo with a digital camera, she said the process would take "a few weeks." In an abundance of caution, I submitted at least ten articles with my application—four more than is required. A few days later, she asked me for color PDFs of the articles, and again, erring on the side of caution, sent seven. Sarubbi emailed a reply for the first time: "Thank you."

Another month passed, and I spent a lot of time in Lower Manhattan, covering the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that was gaining steam, without credentials. I never felt lacking a press pass kept me from a story, especially on November 15th, the day the NYPD raided Zuccotti Park. Around 1 a.m. I stood at the corner of Cortland and Broadway next to two credentialed journalists, one from the New York Times, another from DNAinfo, as we were all shoved north down the sidewalk by NYPD batons and riot shields. No one was allowed to witness what was occurring in the park. Ten journalists, five of them holding NYPD press credentials, were arrested.

Mayor Bloomberg's spokesman, Stu Loeser, responded to complaints about reporters being arrested. "You can imagine my surprise when we found out that only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials." Loeser goes on to state that of the five, three "were in fact trespassing" and had their arrests voided. (One Daily News reporter was arrested covering this.) Aside from the obvious fact that five arrests of working reporters is five too many—credentialed or not—Loeser's comments illuminate the degree to which the NYPD is effectively in the business of anointing journalists. A tweet he fired off to New York Observer's Megan McCarthy encapsulates the Bloomberg administration's view: "@megan, you don't have a press pass; that's your option. But why should some random NYPD take your word that you're press?"

We asked Loeser eight questions pertaining to the process of obtaining credentials, his response to the arrest of five credentialed journalists, and, specifically, "Does a journalist need NYPD press credentials to be considered a reporter in the eyes of the city?" Loeser responded:

Credentials exist—as it says right on the back of them—to let their holders cross police lines during breaking news events when the public safety officials on the scene feel it’s safe to let them. Many, many journalists never cover on-scene breaking news events. Police lines are put up for good reasons beyond obvious concerns during police actions like drug busts—including preserving evidence at crime scenes and protecting the safety of people and property in situations like apartment fires (when neighboring apartment doors are often broken down).

Elizabeth Spiers, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Observer, penned an editorial a few days after the arrests that called the NYPD's process for receiving credentials "ridiculous," noting that even as the Observer's EIC she does not meet the city's definition of a reporter. "I don't think NYPD should be credentialing press," Spiers tells us. "It's as if the government is effectively licensing journalists, which I find disturbing." Ben Fried at Streetsblog also feels like the NYPD shouldn't be the gatekeepers. "There's a substantial public interest in giving this responsibility to an agency that is not itself the subject of constant coverage by the press."

According to Siegel, one idea batted around during the settlement talks two years ago was transferring the power to issue press credentials to the Department of Consumer Affairs. It was rejected by the city. The veteran reporter we spoke to isn't keen on that idea, but offers, "Why not City Hall? City Hall seems like a pretty logical alternative. Taking it out of the hands of the police is a pretty decent goal." During a meeting between the NYPD and The New York Press Club in 2010 to discuss the new credentialing guidelines, the latter proposed that a committee made up of journalists "closely monitor any new application process." They also asked that the NYPD report how many people applied for credentials, which ones were rejected, and why. Sounds reasonable to us. "Didn't happen," Bekker says. "After the meeting the whole process kind of disappeared. The rules were enacted, published, adopted by the NYPD."

121511DCPI1.jpg
Christopher Robbins / Gothamist
Or how about abolishing press credentials altogether? Bekker told us that besides the need for some reporters to cross the occasional police line, the passes aren't all that useful. "The Press Club's position is that journalism cannot be licensed." Even the veteran reporter acknowledged that there were times when showing a press badge actually hindered access. "Marching up to a police line wearing press credentials around your neck doesn't work." Bekker noted that sometimes the passes act as an " 'Arrest me' sign dangling from your neck."

A little more than a month after the meeting with Detective Sarubbi, I received a letter signed by Lieutenant Frank Merenda. It read, "Your application is being denied for the following reason(s): 1) You have only provided five articles, commentaries," which met the eligibility requirements (see above). The letter offers the option of a hearing that will be scheduled by the Commanding Officer for the Public Information Division, Deputy Chief Edward J. Mullen. My publisher, Jake Dobkin, received a similar letter. His read, "Of the six (6) articles…you provided, only one is sufficient to show that as a member of the press," and then continues with the form language.

"No one ever anticipated that you'd even have to have an interview, so all this stuff is very troubling," Siegel, the civil rights attorney says. "I'm hearing reports from people that the process is overly burdensome…They should cease and desist in dragging their feet. When we revised the rules for press credentials it was never anticipated that it would take an extended period of time to apply." I asked Siegel if the whole process from application to rejection should exceed 90 days. "My opinion is, that's way too long. The entire process at most should be 30-45 days so at a minimum it should be cut in half." Asked if the delay was typical for the NYPD, the reporter says, "If they don't feel that they want to recognize somebody they often just ignore them completely and don't appear to feel obliged to offer any explanation of why."

Leonard Levitt, former Newsday reporter, author, and the founder of the acclaimed website NYPD Confidential, sued with the help of the ACLU in 2009 to have his press card renewed. "The process seems to be determined by the whims and prejudices of one man, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne, who is Commissioner Ray Kelly's closest aide," Levitt says. "Both Kelly and Browne can be vindictive. If they don't like what a reporter writes about them or the department, they can and will make it difficult for that reporter to get a press card." Levitt, considered an expert on all things NYPD, says he is beginning the process of renewing his press card again, and doesn't "expect it will be easy."

Neither Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, Lieutenant Merenda, or Detective Sarubbi responded to requests for comment for this story.

121511DCPI4.jpg
Jake Dobkin / Gothamist
Gothamist can't even be given the courtesy of receiving the department's "press wire" emails—formerly called The Sheet—which are sent out "in cases of homicide, high profile arrests or major occurrences…to all major news outlets." Many of these releases contain perp sketches or surveillance videos or even good news, such as the capture of a groping suspect, and would seemingly offer the department positive PR at a time when morale is supposedly low. But our repeated attempts to have Gothamist placed on the list have been rejected. One officer answering the phone at DCPI office told us we'd have to take our request all the way to the top. "I can't do that. The Commissioner has to approve every email address on the list." We incredulously asked how we'd catch Ray Kelly's attention. "I can't help you there, you'll have to go the Commissioner's office." Click.

Later, we were told by a less jocular officer that Detective Brian Sessa handles the press wire emails. My editor Jen Chung asked Detective Sessa what we needed to do to get on the list.

"Do you have press credentials?" Detective Sessa asked. "Not yet," she replied.

"Once you get them, call me."

"What if we're in the process of appealing our rejection?"

"You need credentials."

And last week, while covering a demonstration at Foley Square, another cop put it more bluntly: "Get some NYPD press credentials or get out."

Chris's Clips



Jake's Clips
Post a Comment