Covering a Napa County brush fire on Wednesday, July 11, turned out to be anything but routine for ABC 7 news reporter Wayne Freedman and photographer Craig Southern. Their television station has filed an official citizen’s complaint against two Napa County Sheriff’s deputies who confiscated Southern’s TV camera, broke Freedman’s cell phone when he tried to use it to videotape their actions, and handcuffed both men and detained them in the back of a squad car for 15 minutes. No charges were filed, and Freedman and Southern were released after Napa County Sheriff’s Capt. Gene Lyerla arrived on the scene.
Southern began filming as soon as they arrived at the fire, meaning that the station has a recording of the initial encounter, says ABC 7 news director Kevin Keeshan. “It was 43 seconds from the time our reporter and photographer got out of their vehicle to the time one of the deputies starts trying to wrestle Craig’s camera away from him.”
With a few exceptions, state law allows the media access to disaster scenes. Keeshan says that when emergency personnel think a news crew shouldn’t be in a certain area, usually there’s a discussion about what is or isn’t allowed. In this case, Keeshan says, that never happened. In less than 60 seconds the deputies went from “code green to code red,” he asserts. “While there may be disagreements about where we should and should not go, never have our employees been handcuffed and put in the back of squad car.” He adds emphatically, “We had a legal right to be where we were.”
In his blog, Freedman acknowledges that after the deputy slapped the cell phone out of his hand, surprise prompted Freedman to call the deputy by “an unflattering description” and later he added “a few more choice words.”
Napa County sheriff Doug Koford and Napa County risk manager Kerry Whitney met with Keeshan and the station’s manager on Friday, July 13. Also present was Napa County Sheriff’s Department captain John Robertson, who says that after the July 11 incident, county personal were sent a memo outlining the specific state law governing media access and asking employees to report any unprofessional behavior by media representatives. An internal investigation of the incident is underway and should be completed within 21 days, Robertson says. He adds that the Napa County Sheriff’s Department has always had extremely good relationships with all media sources–local, Bay Area and nationwide. “We depend on the media to assist us in all kinds of public safety matters.”