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On Feb. 1, a television photographer rigged up a model airplane with a camera, transforming it into something like a drone, and sent it over the scene of a fatal Hartford accident.
It's the kind of initiative taking that usually gets a journalist praise from his bosses, maybe even a raise. But Pedro Rivera's ingenuity was rewarded with an arrest by the Hartford Police and a suspension from his job.
Mr. Rivera wasn't breaking any laws and wasn't even working the day he launched his experimental newsgathering "drone" over the accident scene but he offended Sgt. Edward Yergeau, who ordered Mr. Rivera to land the plane and detained him.
The officer couldn't come up with a crime to pin on the photographer but he wrote a rather fanciful arrest report on what Mr. Rivera might have done wrong if Sgt. Yergeau were making our laws. The incident report surmised that flying a drone over the accident scene might compromise the integrity of the scene and "the privacy of the victim's body." This particular body was covered with a blanket.
The report also cited Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibiting the use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, including journalism, except there aren't any. Brian Schulman, a New York attorney specializing in drone laws, told The Hartford Courant there is no federal regulation on the operation of drones for commercial purposes, just a policy statement.
When the arresting officer could not come up with a crime, Lt. Brian Foley, commander of the department's major crimes division, of all things, stepped in. Lt. Foley informed WFSB management of Mr. Rivera's "major crime" for which he could find no charge and requested that the station discipline him.
Incredibly, the station complied and Mr. Rivera was suspended for a week without pay. Klarn DePalma, the station's general manager, even hastened to announce the station doesn't own or use drones, didn't assign Mr. Rivera to shoot the accident scene and has never compensated Mr. Rivera for any drone video. He didn't have to add he also discourages journalistic innovation and ingenuity.
Mr. DePalma was a member of the task force formed by the General Assembly last year after it secretly passed controversial legislation severely restricting public access to murder scene evidence and prohibiting the publication and broadcasting of murder scene photographs and 911 calls. He was behind a "compromise" recommendation by the task force, which had been stacked with privacy advocates. It asked the General Assembly to pass a new law allowing public viewing of murder scene evidence but not its publication without the government's permission. If passed, this would not only negate the state's Freedom of Information law but also the First Amendment.
In a free society it is fundamental that the facts surrounding how people are murdered should not be kept from the press and public by the government. That an official associated with a news organization would endorse such restrictions is troubling.
As for Mr. Rivera, he contacted Norm Pattis, a lawyer specializing in interesting or unusual cases, and Mr. Pattis subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department. It claims officers violated Mr. Rivera's civil rights when they stopped him from using his model airplane at the accident scene.
"Officers have the right to stop a person if they feel they are up to no good. They don't have the right to stop a person if they disagree with what they're doing, if no law prohibits what they are doing. That's the line we believe they are crossing," said Mr. Pattis.
Mr. Pattis also said that while the need for regulating the commercial use of drones may be open to debate, "we don't need beat cops making them up as they go along."
We wish Mr. Rivera success in his lawsuit and in his future as a photojournalist, wherever it may take him.