The Chapel Hill Town Council has apologized "for the actions taken against the press on Nov. 13." That was the day police made arrests at the former Yates Motor Co. building at 419 W. Franklin St., which had been occupied by protestors.
Two journalists were detained. One of them was Katelyn Ferral, a reporter for The N&O and Chapel Hill News. Before police arrived, Ferral was on the scene for about 15 minutes, interviewing people inside the building and walking around the site. When police approached the building they ordered everyone to get to the ground but allowed Ferral to shoot photographs. After a few more minutes, they told her to get on the ground. She told them she was a reporter and provided identification. She remained face-down on the ground for 15 minutes, was cuffed and then detained for about 30 minutes before being released.
It's clear Chapel Hill police didn't know what to do about the journalists. They knew Ferral wasn't doing anything illegal; otherwise they would have charged her. She in no way hindered their work. If police thought Ferral was in their way (and no one representing Chapel Hill police has ever said this, including Chief Chris Blue when I later met with him), they could have directed Ferral to a spot away from the action. Other police agencies in the Triangle routinely direct reporters to a spot deem appropriate by police. But Chapel Hill police had no written policy on how to work with journalists at a crime scene. Since then, I have shared Raleigh's written policy with town officials and met with Blue and Roger Stancil, town manager, to talk about how journalists and police can work together. It's in everybody's best interest -- police and those being arrested -- for independent observers to record the proceedings. Blue agrees with this. The presence of journalists can help protect police from unfounded claims of inappropriate force.
There was no reason to detain Ferral, other than police didn't know what to do with her. In this country, that's not a good enough reason to force a citizen to lie face down and be cuffed.
A majority of the council recognized that. We accept their apology and will work with Chapel Hill to help police and journalists do their jobs. --John Drescher