Police training in spotlight after local journalists’ arrests
Chief Girt to review events at Waterdown fatal crash scene
The arrest of two journalists at a fatal crash in Waterdown on Tuesday night is raising questions about Hamilton police policies and training over dealings with media.
Freelance photographer David Ritchie was arrested at the crash scene and charged with obstructing police and resisting arrest.
Global News videographer Jeremy Cohn was arrested but released unconditionally.
Both were among the first at the scene of a crash that killed a 10year-old girl — a scene described as emotional and chaotic with only two officers scrambling to deal with people all over the road.
Police tape had not yet been put up. Witnesses, family and neighbours were standing all over the road and on front lawns.
Ritchie’s camera was allegedly seized before he was arrested.
Video shows Cohn being arrested while working farther back, standing on a gas station property at the end of the road.
Hamilton police Chief Eric Girt has promised to “review” the situation.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Girt said he takes the arrest of any member of the media seriously. He said the service can’t comment further because the matter is before the courts.
Others have spoken out about the arrests, however.
This type of incident happens “when police services don’t have a clear media policy and adequate training with officers about the role of media in a democratic society,” said James Turk, director of the Centre of Free Expression and visiting professor at Ryerson University.
Unless there is clear evidence Ritchie did something illegal, the charges should be immediately dropped, said Turk, noting he doesn’t know the exact details of what happened.
“Journalists shouldn’t get in the way of police doing their jobs, but police also shouldn’t get in the way of journalists doing their jobs,” he said, adding some of the most important work done by journalists is in chaotic and difficult situations.
“Journalists are there to provide a factual, detailed report of what happened.”
Police board chair Lloyd Ferguson expressed frustration over media coverage of the journalists’ arrests, arguing that it’s the death of the 10-year-old girl that really matters. He offered condolences on the death.
(The Spectator has devoted separate coverage to the girl’s death, concerns the community has raised about traffic safety and ongoing efforts by the Waterdown community to support the family.)
Ferguson said he could not comment on matters under investigation, but noted police were very busy with “two tragedies” that evening on Highway 403 and in Waterdown.
There weren’t enough officers available and the first on scene had to deal with a “volatile situation.”
“Clearly, those officers’ first job was to take charge of a volatile situation.”
It is not the police board’s job to investigate officer conduct, Ferguson noted, adding anyone concerned about an officer’s conduct can complain to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).
Ritchie, who is scheduled to appear in court June 15, has not commented publicly on his arrest, other than to post on Twitter that he has “great relationships” with first responders. “This was an isolated issue and I will be seeking resolution.”
Many journalists, media watchers and first responders posted messages of support on Twitter. Brad Patton, Centre Wellington fire chief, offered to provide a “character reference” for Ritchie.
This is not the first time journalists, and particularly photojournalists, have been arrested while working in Canada; however, it is rare in Hamilton.
Media rights group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has called for the dismissal of charges and a “full and public inquiry.”
CJFE also urged Hamilton police to institute a media relations policy and train officers on how to “interact constructively” with the media to “give clarity of the crucial role journalists have in a democratic society.”
Mayor Fred Eisenberger declined to comment Thursday.
On Tuesday, he would only say: “This incident is under investigation with the Hamilton Police Service ... My thoughts and prayers are with the family (in) this tragedy, witnesses and the first responders on scene.”
Journalists are there to provide a factual, detailed report of what happened. JAMES TURK