Police officer indicted over photojournalist’s false arrest

The flash or, more precisely, the lack of one, gave the policeman away.

Over a year ago, on a steamy Saturday night in the Bronx, New York City Police Officer Michael Ackermann claimed that a photojournalist had set off his flash repeatedly in the officer’s face, blinding and distracting him, as he was arresting a teenage girl. So he arrested Robert Stolarik, a freelancer photographer for The New York Times, on charges of obstructing government administration and resisting arrest.

Last week Ackermann himself was indicted and charged with three felony counts and five misdemeanor counts, all involving the alleged falsification of statements or records to justify Stolarik’s August 4, 2012, arrest. Investigators established Stolarik’s camera did not have a flash at the time of his arrest. The policeman now faces up to seven years in jail if convicted of the most serious charge of tampering with public records.

The indictment of a law enforcement officer for his alleged orchestration of a false arrest of a journalist doing his job seems to be a rare step forward in advancing press freedom in the United States but also internationally. CPJ has documented many cases around the world where police or other authorities have arrested, beaten, or otherwise interfered with working journalists with impunity.

CPJ has reported the arrests of photographers at work in the past year in Bahrain and Mexico, and in recent years the beating of photojournalists by police in Canada, Belarus, Somalia, Guinea, Uganda, Chad, and India. None of those responsible for the arrests or beatings in those countries were held accountable, according to CPJ research. 

In the New York case, Ackermann has not yet entered a plea. He has been released without bail and suspended without pay pending the outcome of the trial, Reuters reported.

“An investigation of the incident determined that there was no flash attached to the photographer’s camera at the time of the incident and that the camera could not discharge a flash without an attachment,” reads a statement by Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson. “An examination of the photographs that were taken also revealed that no flash was used and none of the other witnesses to the incident, police or civilian, reported seeing the photographer’s camera discharge a flash. All charges against the photographer stemming from this incident were subsequently dismissed.”

Two days after Stolarik’s arrest,  the National Press Photographers Association sent a letter of protest to the NYPD. The arresting officers not only “interfered with Mr. Stolarik by illegally ordering him to stop taking pictures, but after he identified himself as a journalist an officer is said to have ‘grabbed his camera and slammed it into his face,'” read the letter by NPPA General Counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher. “Mr. Stolarik’s reasonable request for that officer’s badge number resulted in other officers allegedly seizing his cameras while dragging him to the ground. He claims he was kicked in the back and was treated at the hospital for ‘scrapes and bruises to arms, legs and face.'”

In a statement posted online, the NPPA welcomed the news of the indictment, calling it “an encouraging sign in what was otherwise a troubling year for the NYPD’s relationship with photographers.”

NPPA General Counsel Osterreicher has written a number of blog posts for CPJ offering resources and tips for journalists covering events such as political party conventions, along with suggestions for what to do if you are arrested. CPJ has reported on police interfering with or arresting reporters outside political conventions in Denver and St. Paul.

Arrests or interference with journalists “are becoming all too common throughout the country,” notes the NPPA in its recent statement. “Many officers apparently do not know or disregard photographers’ First Amendment rights.”

In the United States, the NPPA has been active in helping to provide advice and training to the New York Police Department and police departments in other cities.