The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) sent a letter to Sheriff Haley of the Washoe County (Nev.) Sheriff’s Office today requesting that the department conduct an investigation regarding an incident in which sheriff’s deputies injured and detained a photographer covering a brush fire earlier this week.
Sixty-year-old photojournalist Tim Dunn suffered scrapes to his hands and face on Monday while attempting to photograph a fire in Sun Valley, Nevada, after he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies and cited for obstruction and resisting.
“This is just the most recent incident in a rash of similar police abuses across the country,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for NPPA. “While in some situations the press may have no greater rights than those of the general public, they certainly have no less right of access on a public street.”
Dunn, who has worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal for the past 21 years, was not arrested following the incident despite being physically manhandled by the deputies. Sheriff’s Deputy Armando Avina confirmed that the incident occurred but would not comment on it because reports of the case had not been completed.
NPPA’s letter to the sheriff also requested that the charges against Dunn be immediately dropped, and that the department issue orders directing deputies to cease such activity against photographers.
“While not an expert on Nevada law, it has been my experience that a person must be physically obstructing an officer and that mere presence does not satisfy the elements of that crime,” Osterreicher said. “Using the catch-all charge of resisting against a 60-year-old, well respected photojournalist is reprehensible.”
Dunn was covering a brush fire that destroyed two homes when he said he was told to leave the area and directed to a location farther away. Dunn said he complained that the location was too far away to take photographs, and that he and Capt. John Spencer got into a heated conversation. It was then that Dunn said one deputy shoved his foot into the award-winning photographer’s back to get him on the ground and another deputy pushed his face into the gravel.
“It appears that all of your personnel acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unprofessional manner and appear to have no concept of the First Amendment rights granted to the press under the United States Constitution and Nevada Statutes,” said Osterreicher in his letter to the sheriff. “NPPA stands ready to work with your department to help develop reasonable and workable policies and practices in order to avoid similar situations.”
Beryl Love, Gazette-Journal executive editor, said there have been multiple instances in the past year when staffers were denied access to scenes where they had a right to be. Love said the newspaper is preparing a formal complaint to local law enforcement and advising Dunn on possible civil actions.
Dunn said the deputies accused him of impersonating a firefighter by wearing yellow protective fire gear and a helmet and goggles. Sierra Front Media Fire Guide, published by a coalition of state and federal agencies, recommends wearing these items while covering fires.
Dunn said that he was detained for more than half an hour after being handcuffed. He said he is disappointed by Monday’s incident and confused as to why the deputies responded in the way they did.
An Aug. 1 court date is scheduled for Dunn’s charges of obstruction and resisting.