Detroit IA unit investigating arrest of photographer
Police said they are looking into the conduct of photographer Mandi Wright and the actions of an officer who ordered her to stop filming and wrestled her phone away from her
By Jim Schaefer and Gina Damron
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Detroit police and the department's internal affairs officers have launched investigations following the arrest of a Free Press photographer who was filming a police action on a public street last week.
Police said they are looking into the conduct of photographer Mandi Wright and the actions of an officer who ordered her to stop filming and wrestled her phone away from her. They also are looking into the disappearance of a memory card from her newspaper-issued iPhone and whether she was briefly left alone with the crime suspect whom she had been filming.
Wright, 47, was arrested Thursday after she and a reporter came upon an arrest scene near Woodbridge and Riopelle, east of downtown. Police at the scene said Wright tussled with an officer after he had confiscated her iPhone; Wright said that she was concentrating on taking her video and did not realize the man who grabbed her phone was a police officer. Wright was handcuffed and later, she said, put in an interrogation room with the suspect.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig confirmed Monday that an internal affairs investigation is being conducted. Deputy Chief James Tolbert said no conclusions have been drawn, but if that investigation verifies that she was put into a room with the suspect and then left alone, "that could be a serious breach of department policy."
Tolbert said investigators still are looking into "the whole incident, from start to end. What we did, what she did, the whole nine." He would not name the officer.
Wright, a Free Press journalist since 2000, was freed 6 1/2 hours after her arrest with no charges filed. She said she was wearing media identification around her neck when she went out with reporter Kathleen Gray to shoot video as part of a training project. About 3:30 p.m., they stopped to record the police action.
Her video shows eight officers involved in the arrest of a man wearing a white tank top and blue jeans. All but one appear to be in plainclothes, most with the word "police" on their shirts or vests. Four marked police cruisers are visible.
As two officers walked the suspect to a cruiser, Wright approached with her camera rolling. As an officer begins searching the suspect's pockets, a man wearing a black-collared shirt, green pants and a ball cap comes into view on Wright's left and and says, "Back up. ... Back up." He points into the camera and says, "No. Turn it off."
Wright, taking a step back, says, "I'm with the Detroit Free Press."
"OK," the man responds.
"I'm a journalist, working journalist," Wright says.
"OK. I don't care who you are," he says.
As the camera is jostled, Wright says, "Wait. Are you touching me? I'm sorry --" Then the recording cuts off.
Wright later said she didn't know the man approaching her was a police officer and thought he was an angry civilian. He didn't identify himself on the tape, and his clothes carried no police insignia.
The man grabbed her arm and reached for her phone. Gray, standing nearby, said Wright pulled her arm to her chest to protect the phone, but the man pulled it from her grip and turned to walk away.
"I was just surprised at how quickly it escalated," Gray said. "There was no effort to try to figure out who we were or what we were doing. It was just immediately going for the phone."
Wright said she tried to get her phone back. Gray said there was a brief struggle, with Wright reaching from behind the man and pulling on the tail of his shirt. Officers at the scene told Wright that she was interfering with police. Later, police alleged she had jumped on his back.
Wright was arrested, handcuffed and taken to the northeastern district near 7 Mile and Mound. On the ride, officers told her the suspect she had filmed had been armed with a gun, led police on a car chase and then cut himself on a razor wire fence as he tried to flee.
At the station, Wright said, she shared an interrogation room with the suspect. An officer interviewed her in front of the man, asking for personal information, including her home address and name.
For the next several hours, Wright said police kept moving her around and eventually told her she was going to be charged with obstruction and assaulting a police officer. As of Monday, she had not been charged.
Later, police returned the phone, but the SIM card had been removed. Still, the video remained on the phone's internal memory. After the discovery that the card was missing, internal affairs officers were summoned to interview Wright and Gray.
Tolbert arrived after the interviews with internal affairs, and he was apologetic to Free Press editors who had gone to the precinct. He said police were embarrassed. Wright was released around 11 p.m.
Tolbert said Monday he expects a department-wide directive will go out soon to remind officers they cannot prevent anyone from videotaping them in public.
Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Free Press, said the situation should not have escalated as it did.
"First, our photographer was doing what any journalist -- or any citizen -- has a right to do in a public place," he said. "All she knew was that someone had grabbed her and her phone. We understand the difficult job that police officers do, and we understand how tensions can rise. Yet some of the police actions all through this incident need scrutiny -- not the actions of our photographer."
Hershel Fink, Free Press legal counsel, said courts in the U.S. have consistently agreed that "citizens, much less the press, have a right to photograph police officers in public places. The video shows she did not interfere with the police action and the officer had no right to order her to stop filming and to confiscate her camera."
Copyright 2013 the Detroit Free Press