Sheriff investigating officer conduct at Aug. 7 crash

By Will LaBreche,
Sawyer County Record Staff Writer/Web Editor

Published: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 3:21 PM CDT

DeMain with bruise
The Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the conduct of Deputy Brian Knapp after the officer was alleged to have forcibly removed a journalist from the scene of a head-on automobile accident on Gurno Lake Road on the evening of Aug. 7.

According to veteran Native American journalist and editor Paul DeMain of the Lac Courte Oreilles-based nationwide newspaper “News from Indian Country,” Knapp struck him with a flashlight causing severe bruising while escorting DeMain from the scene of the crash. DeMain had been filming video to post on his newspaper’s Web site as “routine” accident coverage, DeMain said, when Knapp approached and demanded he leave the scene.

The incident

“There was the fire department and EMTs on the scene who were beginning to deploy medical equipment and identify who was hurt,” DeMain described. Prior to filming, DeMain had surveyed the area making sure no victims were in severe distress, or were fatally injured.

According to Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Tim Zeigle, DeMain arrived so early to the scene that no perimeter had been established by his department or LCO tribal police. Zeigle said deputies’ primary concerns are for scene integrity and public safety.

“There was no perimeter established. He (DeMain) was on the side of the road, standing in the ditch-line taking photographs,” Zeigle stated.

DeMain said he continued to film the “relatively calm” scene until Knapp arrived, which can be seen by DeMain’s video now posted on YouTube.

“I went off to the side of the road which is on my private property and started taking some shots from there,” he said. “Knapp puts on his security jacket and consults with (LCO) officer Donny Morrow briefly. Knapp then spins around and comes across the road straight at me . . . very rapidly.”

“There was no reason not to try to take pictures. There were no safety issues,” DeMain recalled. “Most people know me. They know who I am and see me poke around.”

According to DeMain, Knapp instructed him “to leave the scene” with DeMain responding, “How far back do you want me to move?”

In DeMain’s words, Knapp grabbed the camera and at the same time DeMain’s hand, squeezing both and triggering the standby button on the video camera to cease recording.

“I said, ‘I’m a member of the press, get your hands off my equipment.’ I then tried to pry his fingers off as he was ordering me out of the scene at the same time. At that point is when he took his flashlight and struck me on the shoulder,” DeMain said.

DeMain then for the first time realized the video camera was off — turning it back on as Knapp began to escort him from the scene.

“I tried to tell him my name and that there were numerous individuals on site who knew who I was and could vouch for me as a member of the press. He then said my name didn’t make any difference.”

Reflecting on his career as a journalist, DeMain added, “I’ve been asked to move back from an accident scene occasionally. In the past I’ve been directed to go into an accident scene to take pictures, and then remove myself. I’ve never been ordered out of an area.”

The bruising on his upper left shoulder is still apparent three weeks later. As DeMain describes it, “It’s not a horrendous type of injury, but the idea is that an officer used his flashlight as a weapon to strike me.”

Because of the ongoing investigation, Chief Deputy Zeigle could not elaborate on the incident further. He said the matter was a departmental “personnel issue” which limits his response to questions.

He said the department is taking the incident very seriously and added, “We will get to the bottom of it and take appropriate steps when we get all the facts.” Because it is being handled by the department as a personnel issue, a request to interview Knapp was denied.

The result

DeMain has now filed a formal complaint with the sheriff’s department concerning the actions of Knapp, which has sparked an investigation into the matter.

“Deputy Knapp still had the error in judgment in how to move me. There was no probable cause, no safety issues, no evidentiary issues,” DeMain said. “Everyone was doing their jobs and I was doing my job, until these officers decided that there was something wrong with me being there. So it’s either a matter of training, or judgment or re-training.”

But he is quick to separate the actions of one deputy from the practices of other officers with the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department.

“I am pleased with the way the sheriff’s department and LCO tribal police department has responded to this situation . . . they have treated it very seriously,” he said. “The relationship between law enforcement and the tribal community is a tenacious one, and has been for many years. But I think when an officer conducts himself outside the scope of his authority, and it’s captured on video like this — I think the apology needs to go to his fellow officers.”

DeMain said he has not ruled out a civil lawsuit against Knapp “for depriving a citizen of his First Amendment rights” or a criminal battery lawsuit.

Freedom of the press

DeMain explained part of his complaint “has a lot more to do with the freedom of press” and the relationship between the media and police officials.

“As public servants paid with taxpayer money, on public lands in a public place, any citizen has the right to take a picture of them. In this modern age, everyone has become a reporter, especially with cell phones that take pictures and video,” DeMain said.

“We’re not trying to get our cameras in the nooks and crannies looking for gory things. We’re trying to take a picture to tell a story for the community.”

Subsequent to the incident, DeMain was provided segments of the policies and procedures manual from the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department, which in part states that in “major disasters . . . the sheriff’s department has a right and responsibility to help make sure the press has access for pictures and video streaming.”

“It says it right there,” DeMain said. “And this was just a car accident.”

“We have to make the scene safe for everybody,” Ziegle said. “If it’s a major event, we request the media stage in one area. This was a little different. There’s nothing in place (for) traffic accidents.”

“There’s no real (media) protocol at an accident, other than that to make sure the press isn’t interfering or putting themselves in danger,” he added. “With the Vang deal, we had an area for the media to stage in and gave our briefing from that area. That’s certainly not the case at a local traffic accident.”

DeMain said the sheriff’s department should consider creating a policy which allows media to access accidents, just like the department treats major disasters. In considering this, he added, the media should be sensitive to graphic scenes and to the need to allow officers to secure public safety within the scene.

After posting the video on YouTube, DeMain sent a link to many of his colleagues both in journalism and at federal law enforcement agencies.

“In 1994, I launched an investigation into 30-year old murders by the American Indian Movement, which has borne fruit and there has been three indictments. So I have nationwide experience and contacts with officials and journalists nationwide,” he said. [NFIC Ed. Note: The investigation team included several members of the Native American Journalists Association]

DeMain is also a past president and board member of the Native American Journalists’ Association and helped incorporate the Unity Coalition, which has more than 10,000 journalist members, according to DeMain.

Right to privacy?

As for an individual’s right to privacy, said DeMain, the accident victim is “on a public highway, being treated by a public service officer. There is no right to privacy at all.”

“If you’re out in public, you don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to somebody not taking your photo,” Kendall Harrison, an attorney with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA), confirmed. “It’s certainly within an officer’s rights to protect their own safety and the safety of others who are at the scene of an accident. It’s within the officer’s discretion to take steps to secure the scene. Beyond that, police don’t have any right to prevent somebody from taking photos of a scene. Their rights extend to safety concerns.”

Harrison, who is familiar with DeMain’s incident, said that “DeMain was perhaps singled out from other people ... because he happened to be filming (video). And that’s problematic.”

Harrison stressed there is no difference between shooting video or still photos when it comes to media rights.

To watch a digital interview with DeMain, click here. You may have to create a user account to view all material.

For other Saywer County and Lac Courte Oreilles News issues click to the Sawyer County Record.

Copyright © 2008 - Sawyer County Record - Hayward, WI

See original NFIC article: Deputy Sheriff strikes reporter at LCO accident scene

See Related Story: Your Right to Know: Respect the rights of news photographers

See Related Statement: NAJA Statement regarding Sawyer County Sheriff Deputy

See Related Story: Sometimes, even good cops overreact

See Related Story: Native American Journalists Statement regarding Sawyer County Sheriff Deputy