On New Year’s Day, St. Louis Post-Dispatch photojournalist Gabriel Tait parked about a quarter of a mile away from a traffic accident on Interstate 70 and got out of his car to walk to the scene to take pictures near Berkeley, MO, a northwest suburb about 15 minutes from the heart of downtown St. Louis. Minutes later, instead of taking photographs, a Berkeley police officer was slamming Tait’s face against the hood of an emergency vehicle while arresting him, the NPPA Region 7 Clip Contest Chairman told his managers and coworkers after he was released from jail.
Yesterday NPPA vice president and NPPA Advocacy Chair Alicia Wagner Calzada sent a notice of NPPA support to Tait and to St. Louis Post-Dispatch photography director Larry Coyne and managing editor Arnie Robbins. "We are outraged at the manner in which your rights were violated while you were doing your job," the message said. "Overzealous and unconstitutional actions by the police against photographers are far too common."
Tait flew to Seattle today to cover this weekend’s St. Louis Rams NFL football wildcard playoff game against the Seahawks. Reached by telephone and asked how he’s feeling, Tait said, "I’m up and I’m down. I was up at 2 a.m. today because I couldn’t sleep. But then I got some sleep on the plane. It’s really hard to find a balance between how some people think it’s kind of funny and other people think it’s more serious, when I feel like it’s kind of serious. I really thought they (the police) would come to their senses, but the ball just kept rolling downhill."
On Saturday, Tait spent four hours in jail before being released on a $500 cash bond, a story yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by reporter Sylvester Brown Jr. said. Brown wrote that the incident Saturday afternoon started when Tait responded to a radio report of an accident, and as he walked up to the scene Tait said an approaching police officer yelled, "You’re not allowed to take pictures here." Tait said he responded, "I’m from the Post-Dispatch, sir, and this is an accident." Tait said it was then that other officers joined in ordering him to stop taking photographs and to leave.
When Tait again tried to identify himself, the story says, he was handcuffed — but he still managed to push a button on his cell phone that placed a call to Sid Hastings, the assistant director of photography at the newspaper. Brown’s story says that Hastings could hear Tait yelling, "Sid, Sid, they’re harassing me!" and "Officer, does this mean you’re taking me into custody?" Tait told Brown that the police turned off the cell phone at that point, and that he was arrested and taken to the Berkeley police station and his photography equipment was confiscated.
The account of how police treated Tait up to this point is disturbing enough, but Brown’s story adds even more striking details about how the event continued to unfold after Tait’s arrest. An officer threatened to bring felony charges against Tait if he didn’t sign a paper that incorrectly identified his confiscated belongings," the story says. Also, Tait told his managers on the day after the incident, one officer told a colleague that he would gladly "take a day off" and come in to "help take him (Tait) down" if necessary, presumably meaning to appear as a witness or to go to court in support of the arresting officers.
"Your case is particularly disturbing because of the abuse and threats that you report," NPPA’s Calzada wrote in the Advocacy Committee’s message to Tait. NPPA’s Advocacy Committee was created in November 2003 to promote awareness and timely responses to issues threatening news photographers. "We are thankful that you are fighting this and that your newspaper is supporting you so vigorously. Each incident like this has a great effect on all photographers, not just the one involved. We stand with you and are available to assist you and your newspaper in whatever way we are able."
Brown’s story quotes Berkeley Police Captain Frank McCall as saying that Tait was arrested because he failed to follow the orders given by officers at the scene. "It was hard to get emergency vehicles to the scene," the story quotes McCall. "It was no place for people to be standing around." McCall said Berkeley police would file a misdemeanor charge in municipal court against the photographer, and that could result in a fine.
Tait’s digital images on his camera’s memory disc, examined later at the newspaper after he was released and his equipment returned, show that he was a "significant distance from the accident scene," the story says. Hastings, who is Tait’s supervisor, is also quoted in the story defending the photojournalist and his actions.
Brown, who worked with Tait on a story as recently as last week, managed to find some humor in the incident to weave into his report. "He (Tait) added that police made him pose for a (booking) mug shot five or six times because he smiled for the camera. ‘I smiled because the whole thing was silly,’ he said."