TV News Crew Detained At Brush Fire

NAPA, CA - KGO-TV photojournalist Craig Southern and reporter Wayne Freedman were briefly handcuffed and detained by Napa County Sheriff's deputies while covering a brush fire on Wednesday, July 11, and Southern's camera was confiscated and Freedman's cell phone was broken during an altercation with two aggressive officers.

The confrontation was documented by a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper photographer, and about 15 minutes after it happened both of the TV journalists were released from the back seat of a squad car where they were being held, without being charged with any crimes. A sheriff's department captain, Gene Lyerla, has apologized for the incident.

The station said in a news story on their Web site that they will pursue all legal options available, including filing a complaint against the two Napa County deputies.

KGO-TV's ABC7 reports that their photojournalist and reporter were trying to get video of firefighters battling a brush fire off Altas Peak Road near the Silverado Country Club when they duo was arrested for "failing to heed an officer's instructions." The fire reportedly burned about 60 acres, and firefighters saved about a dozen homes from the fire which was contained by that evening.

San Francisco Chronicle photojournalist Kim Komenich was nearby when the KGO-TV team were confronted by the deputies and photographed one of the officers as he manhandled Southern's television camera.

KGO-TV said that Southern and Freedman had been stopped at a checkpoint where the deputies told them to stop taking picutres. When they questioned the officer's orders, the station wrote on their Web site, the camera was confiscated and Freedman's cell phone was broken. Freedman was trying to use the camera function of his cell phone to photograph the deputy who was grabbing Southern's camera. Southern says the other officer threated Freedman at that time, told him to step back and threatened to put him in jail, and then he ripped the phone from Freedman's hand and broke it in two, throwing the top piece onto the street.

California state law allows the media to report and take pictures from within police lines, KGO-TV says, and they maintain that's what Southern and Freedman were doing when confronted.

Today a written account of the incident penned by Southern and Freedman was distributed online to members of the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association.

Southern wrote, "We arrived at fire scene around 3.30 [p.m.]. We were stopped and cleared through the first police checkpoint. A little farther up we encountered a Napa County Sheriff and CHP officer at a second checkpoint. We were asked to pull over while CHP checked to see how much farther we might drive. Meanwhile we interviewed a resident trying to get back to his house. I gathered video while Wayne Freedman talked with Sgt. Perry of Napa Sheriff's office. He then cleared us to go forward."

"Up the road two deputies were standing outside their vehicle (parked on the side) saw us approaching and  ordered us back. I stopped the vehicle, backed it up behind squad car and got out. Wayne walked towards deputies on passenger side of vehicle, I went around driver side to get clear view of opposite hillside.

"One of the deputies was shouting us back and met me at the front of their vehicle. I put my tripod on the ground to set up and the deputy grabbed my tripod before I could place the camera on it, and carried it away. I shot video of deputy walking off with tripod and the other deputy said to him "grab his camera, He's out of here".  I turned to shoot Wayne objecting with the deputy when the other grabbed my camera from behind and forced me into the hood of the squad car.
"My left hand was cuffed while my right was holding onto camera and wrestling with officer demanding I drop it.
"Wayne saw this happening and started to take pictures with his cell phone. One of the officers told Wayne to step back, and threatened to put him in jail. He ripped the phone from Wayne's hand, breaking it in two throwing the top piece onto the street. Wayne was cuffed and they tried to take his microphone and reporters notebook. We were placed in squad car and held for a short time and released. No citation, no violation."

Freedman gave SFBAPPA members his account of his part in the incident as the deputies started in Southern: "I told the officer we had every right to be there. He said we didn't know the law in Napa County. I pointed out that state law applies in this situation. We could shoot, and we were pros. We weren't going to get in the way.
"About then, the first deputy ... became agitated for no good reason. He grabbed Craig’s tripod, and became more upset when Craig took his picture doing so.
"I asked [the officer] why he was being difficult. He replied that we were ‘out of there’ because we hadn't been cooperative. I told the officer that he was being more uncooperative than us, but [I] moved to the back of the cruiser, trying to avoid further escalations. As this happened, photographer Kim Komenich of the San Francisco Chronicle [came] forward and past us, without incident. I remember warning him facetiously that he might be 'putting his life in danger.'
"At about the same moment, the deputy ordered his partner to take Craig’s camera, saying, 'He’s out of here.' [The] second deputy ... said to me, 'I'll ask you one last time.' I moved back a bit.
"Meantime, [the first deputy] grabbed Craig’s camera from behind. Craig tried to keep the camera from hitting the ground. [He] pushed Craig headfirst into the cruiser, and ordered him to put his hands behind his back. Craig would not let go of the camera because he was trying to keep it from hitting the ground. While doing so, Jones cuffed his left hand. Craig said repeatedly that he was not a threat - that he wanted to put the camera safely on the ground. The deputy forcefully took the camera from Craig, and cuffed his other hand.
"As I saw this happening, I walked forward with my cell phone camera to document the officers handcuffing Craig, and their unnecessary treatment of him. One of the officers ... told me to step back, and threatened to put me in jail as well. As I tried to take pictures, he ripped the cell phone from my hand, breaking it in two, and threw it to the driveway. He sneered and half-laughed. In my surprise, I called him by an unflattering description. They were way out of line, and over it. I reminded him that we were doing our job on a public street.
"The officer warned me to not resist. I replied with a few more choice words. [He] forced my hands behind my back, handcuffed me, and tried to take my reporter’s notebook and my microphone. I refused to give them up. I told him that if he wanted to take me to jail, then take me to jail, but I was not giving them up. I told him that if he took my notebook, he'd be going to court. I told him I wanted a lawyer. He took the items, and led me away. Then he took my sunglasses and press pass.
"The officers tried to take Craig away, but he refused to leave without his camera. As he leaned down, [the officer] in the black vest said in his ear, 'You don't want to struggle with me, you little bitch,' or words to that effect.
[The deputy] put me into the back of the cruiser, and then Craig joined me a few moments later. We should note that while this was going on, other citizens walked well past the driveway, and up the road. Kim Komenich shot much of his photo sequence from well beyond where the officers had asked us to stop."

Freedman also wrote, "It's worth noting that the Napa County Sheriff has apologized and already launched an internal investigation."