By Paul Martin Lester
When I was eight years old my father was the coach of my little league baseball team. One of his practice drills was called “THINK FAST.” We formed a tight circle and tossed a ball to any teammate. We then backed up until we were each about 15 yards from the center. From soft, underhand tosses we switched to overhand fastballs. The random nature of the exercise, not knowing if and when we would get the ball, improved our instantaneous, decision-making abilities.
Another little league drill, however, had a different lesson. My father would stand at home plate as we took our positions on the field. Extra players pretended to be base runners. Before he hit a ball, he would challenge us to think what we would do if the ball came to one of us. Pre-thinking the best action helped our performance on the field.
At the falls of the Androscoggin River in the southwest part of Maine sits Lewiston, the second largest city in the state. With a population of about 38,000, Lewiston, according to the FBI’s “Uniform Crime Reporting Program” for 2000, had a total of 3,690 crimes committed in the county including 137 automobile thefts. Comparatively, Nez Perce county, home of Lewiston, ID, with about the same number of residents, had a total of 1,385 total crimes with 58 vehicle thefts. Arguably, police officials in Lewiston, ME, need all the help they can get.
Photojournalist Russ Dillingham, a 25-year “veteran of news photography,” recently gave them the help they needed.
Mark Laflamme’s story explains, “Several police agencies are lauding a Sun Journal photographer for tackling a suspect who jumped from a third-floor balcony Wednesday to escape the officers pursuing him.” Experience directed Dillingham’s position on the ground as he said, “Where the cops weren’t.” Sure enough, the suspect for several car thefts jumped off the balcony to escape pursuing officers. As the perp took off running, a detective yelled at Dillingham: “Tackle him, Russ! Tackle him!" Dillingham did as directed and then sat on the suspect until police arrived. Dillingham admitted: "I always kind of wondered what I'd do in a situation like that. But you don't even think about it. You just react."
There are numerous questions that could be asked about this case that should be of concern to members of our profession: What if Dillingham had been severely injured? What if the suspect had been injured and sued Dillingham? What if the man he tackled is innocent? What happens the next time Dillingham is on an assignment and is asked to help the police? What if he gets mistaken for a cop by a more dangerous suspect? What is the special relationship between a reporter and a police officer in a small town? And do journalists have a legal responsibility to follow the commands of police officers?
The NPPA Code of Ethics has three provisos that could pertain negatively to Dillingham’s actions: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity”; “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events”; and “Strive to be unobtrusive and humble in dealing with subjects.”
Rather than criticize Dillingham’s actions, perhaps it is better that he and his colleagues meet with police officials so that all sides understand that it is not personal to refuse, nor is it a part of a journalist’s responsibilities, to tackle and hold a suspected criminal in pursuit of the police.
We are tested when the ball is thrown unexpectedly in our faces, but the profession is most benefited when there is time to make the right throw. Thanks, dad.