New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of unlawfully arresting or harassing journalists and bystanders
who tape or photograph them in public, a lawyer for two men suing the
city told a federal jury Monday.
A lawsuit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, claims police officers violated the constitutional rights of
plaintiffs Greg Griffith and Noah Learned, who were arrested at a 2007
The plaintiffs cite 11 other incidents since 2005 in which people were arrested or allegedly threatened while videotaping,
photographing or merely observing police officers. The list of
potential plaintiffs' witnesses includes Times-Picayune city editor
Gordon Russell and Associated Press Television News producer Rich
"It is a widely accepted and established custom for police officers to arrest or threaten people for filming them," said
Brittany Barrient, a student attorney from the Tulane Law Clinic who
represents Griffith and Learned.
The city's lawyers say Griffith and Learned were interfering with officers breaking up a fight along the parade route.
Both men were arrested and charged with crossing a police cordon, but
the charges were dismissed about two months later.
James Mullaly, city attorney, said the case isn't a "referendum" on the New Orleans Police Department.
"This case is about choices, and it's about choices that the plaintiffs made on the night of Feb. 18, 2007," Mullaly
said during the trial's opening statements Monday. "They went out there
to harass, annoy and interfere with law enforcement."
New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley and two officers who arrested the plaintiffs - D'Meecko Hughes and Brian
Harrison - are named as defendants.
Griffith, a student at Kent State University in Ohio, has been arrested three times since he came to New Orleans to
volunteer in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Griffith claims police officers knocked a camera out of his hand and arrested him in November 2005 after he started
filming officers questioning a group of young men outside a health
clinic where he worked. He also was arrested in 2006 after he pointed a
camera at officers when one of them allegedly pushed a man to the ground
along a parade route.
While students at Kent State, Griffith and Learned co-founded a "Cop Watch" program designed to "monitor police activity
in public in order to deter misconduct," according to a court filing.
Griffith defended his taping of police officers, a practice that a city attorney called his "hobby."
"I think, as a citizen, it's my right to do so, so I do it," he said.
Griffith said he hurt his shoulder and cut his face when a police officer tackled him along the 2007 parade route.
Jurors saw the footage that Griffith taped that night with a digital
camera. He claims the video had been erased from his camera before
police returned it to him, but a computer technician recovered it.
The trial, which is expected to last about three days, could include testimony from the following witnesses:
- Russell, who was a Times-Picayune reporter covering the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 when he and a New York Times
photographer encountered a group of police officers at the scene of an
apparent shoot-out. When the photographer started taking pictures,
officers allegedly aimed their weapons at the journalists and pushed
them up against a wall.
- Matthews, whose APTN crew filmed a man's arrest and beating in the French Quarter several weeks after Katrina. An
officer ordered the crew to stop filming, then pushed Matthews up
against a car and yelled at him after he showed him his press
- Kimberly Roberts, a musician and filmmaker whose Katrina experiences are depicted in a documentary, "Trouble the Water."
One of the scenes depicted in the film includes an encounter with
police in which an officer grabbed Roberts' arm as she filmed them.
- Richard Webster, a reporter for New Orleans City Business who took pictures of two officers confronting volunteer
doctors in a park in the city's Marigny neighborhood. Police officers
ordered Webster to delete his photos and forced him out of the park,
according to plaintiffs' lawyers.
The trial opened less than a week after a former New Orleans police officer, Jeffrey Lehrmann, pleaded guilty to helping
cover up the deadly shooting of unarmed residents after Katrina. The FBI
and Justice Department are probing several shootings involving police
officers after the storm.