From the Editor

Detainment of N&O reporter broke long-standing practice

Executive EditorNovember 19, 2011 

When Chapel Hill police officers handcuffed and detained a News & Observer reporter last weekend, their actions were rare for the Triangle - and unnecessary.

Katelyn Ferral, a reporter for The N&O and Chapel Hill News, was detained Sunday afternoon as she was covering the arrest of seven demonstrators for occupying a vacant car dealership on Franklin Street.

Ferral was in a nearby alley when police ran down a sidewalk in front of the vacant dealership with assault weapons pointed forward.

Ferral, 23, who has worked for us for 16 months, had a media badge around her neck and a camera in her hands.

Police shouted for everyone to get on the ground. Ferral took a few more photos but was instructed to stop and lie on the ground, face down.

She identified herself as a journalist but was told to stay down and to spread her arms wide. She did so.

After about 15 minutes, she was cuffed with zip-tie-like restraints.

Then she sat in a row with others who had been cuffed. Police picked out the people they believed were in the building and bused them away to be arrested.

The others, including Ferral, were photographed and asked to give basic identifying information. Police told her if she ever was on the property again, she could be arrested.

After 30 minutes, they took off her cuffs, directed her not to take more photos and released her.

We don't want to get in the way of police. They have a job to do.

So do we.

The standard practice in the Triangle is for reporters to identify themselves (as Ferral did) and for police to direct reporters to a spot off to the side of the action.

That way police can do their jobs and reporters can observe without interfering or being in harm's way.

This kind of interplay between reporters and police happens routinely in the Triangle without incident. But a second incident occurred Thursday night, as we were covering the shooting of a Wake County sheriff's deputy in a Wendell subdivision.

Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison complained that N&O reporter Thomasi McDonald crossed into a forbidden area and did not initially identify himself as a reporter. McDonald was asked to move and did.

We respect the work of police officers. Our job is to inform you. Our reporting tells you, the taxpaying public, about crime in our community and how police responded.

Ferral's photograph of police on Franklin Street pointing semi-automatic rifles, which we published Monday, contributed to a community discussion about whether police used improper force. Our criminal justice system operates best when the public is informed and involved.

I called Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Klein schmidt on Monday to express my displeasure with the way Ferral was treated. Kleinschmidt expressed concern and said he asked Town Manager Roger Stancil to investigate.

In general, we've been able to avoid the kind of confrontation with police that you see in other parts of the country.

Earlier this week, at least seven journalists were arrested in New York City while covering the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Longtime readers might remember an incident that neither The N&O nor the Raleigh Police Department wants repeated. In spring of 1978, while breaking up a May Day street festival near N.C. State University, police arrested three N&O staffers who were covering the story.

But police didn't confiscate the journalists' cameras.

The N&O published a front-page photo of a police officer in a holding cell kicking a man, one of 32 people arrested for not dispersing after police warned that the party was over.

Thirty-one witnesses said police clubbed bystanders without provocation and refused to tell people why they were being arrested.

The arrests of journalists broke a long-standing practice of Raleigh police to allow reporters to cover demonstrations and other disturbances.

The 1978 arrests were a temporary breakdown. The two incidents in the past week were two more than The N&O has had in the previous five years.

We will respect the work of police in our efforts to bring you the most complete report possible.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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