Journalists describe New Orleans police run-ins

Reporters testify against officers who they say threatened and arrested them for taking videos and photos

Published March 16, 2010 9:38PM (EDT)

Several journalists described run-ins with New Orleans police Tuesday as they testified about allegations that city officers routinely arrest or threaten people who film them.

Greg Griffith and Noah Learned sued in December 2007, claiming police violated their constitutional rights when they were arrested at a Carnival parade that year.

Their lawsuit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, cites 11 other incidents since 2005 in which people were arrested or allegedly threatened while videotaping, photographing or observing police officers.

The city's lawyers said during opening statements in the case that Griffith, who had a digital camera, and Learned were interfering with officers breaking up a fight along the parade route. Capt. John Thomas of the department's Public Integrity Bureau said Tuesday he is not aware of any complaints by people arrested while videotaping officers.

The men say they were within their rights to film police in public. Both were arrested and charged with crossing a police cordon, but the charges were dismissed about two months later.

Learned, now 29, was a student at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette at the time and Griffith, now 34, had come to the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to volunteer at a health clinic. They met at Kent State University in Ohio, where they co-founded a "Cop Watch" program to monitor police activity.

Journalists testified Tuesday about several other New Orleans incidents. Associated Press Television News videojournalist Rich Matthews said he and his crew were filming an arrest in the city's French Quarter several weeks after Katrina when an officer shoved him against a car and ordered him to stop taping.

A video of the incident showed that when Matthews held up his credentials, the officer grabbed him, leaned him backward over a car, jabbed him in the stomach and unleashed a profanity-laced tirade.

"There was one officer who approached us from behind, shoved me and said, 'Shut those cameras off. Put those cameras away,'" recalled Matthews, who testified from Dallas through a video teleconference.

Franz Zibilich, a lawyer for the city, noted that police officers had endured stressful, dangerous conditions for weeks, and most of the city was still under a mandatory evacuation order.

"He appeared to be very frustrated, true?" Zibilich asked.

"Yes, he was upset," Matthews said.

Jurors also heard from Times-Picayune city editor Gordon Russell, who was driving through New Orleans with a New York Times photographer after Katrina when they encountered a group of officers in the aftermath of an apparent shoot-out.

"We were ordered out of the car at gunpoint and the police confiscated my notebook and the photographer's camera for a time," Russell testified.

Officer D'Meecko Hughes, one of two officers being sued, acknowledged in court Tuesday that citizens have a right to film police activity but said the two men were arrested after they got too close to police.

The suit names Hughes and former officer Brian Harrison, who arrested Griffith and Learned, along with New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley. It seeks an unspecified amount of money and a court order that could require police to change their practices.

By Michael Kunzelman

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