Ask a question, and you’re going to jail

emergencylandingweb1

I may as well expand on what I described in a prior post: my turbulent and stormy relationship with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. These conflicts, specifically with this one agency, defined a substantial portion of my career, and as I recount stories through the years and how I shot various pictures, the difficulties in dealing with the KCSO will be a prevailing theme. This picture is from an incident that illustrates what it was like to be a reporter or a photographer in Kern County and the things we had to deal with from the KCSO. On January 15, 1993, a United Airlines jet flying from Oakland to Los Angeles made an emergency landing at Bakersfield’s Meadows Field when the pilot discovered smoke in the cockpit. The emergency chutes were deployed and 111 passengers evacuated the plane. Three received minor injuries. This was not a major news story, but certainly one of regional importance, as any emergency involving plane travel and a major airline would be. You can’t be a news photographer, especially in a county like Kern, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of media law. Trust me on this. While California law allows media access to accident and disaster scenes (Penal Code 409.5 and affirmation in Leisersen v. San Diego), that does not include the right of access to airport runways or secured areas. Those fall under Federal law, and you can’t access them. We of course, knew that, and frequently talked about how we would cover an incident at the airport. We scouted how to find vantage points that would allow us to see what was happening without being seen by officials and without violating the law. We talked about it amongst ourselves. This is how I was able to get this photo of the plane with all the passengers gathered. We planned for it and knew where to go. That was the easy part. After getting this photo, I headed to the terminal. That’s where all the media had gathered, and that’s where we would be able to talk to the passengers about their ordeal. Tom Maurer was the reporter. We waited outside the passenger terminal as the passengers were loaded onto a bus and transported from the runway to the terminal. And then, this. A Kern County Sheriff’s sergeant approached us and said – I swear I am not making this up – “If any of you attempt to talk to the passengers when they get off the bus or ask any questions, you’re going to jail.” This was a common bullying tactic with these guys. It didn’t work with The Californian staffers, nor did it work with the veteran TV news guys like Karl Schweitzer, Kevin Keeshan, Carlos Gonzales or Mark Matthews, but TV had high turnover and lots of young, inexperienced reporters who were easily intimidated and frightened. Maurer and I looked at each other and smiled. We knew exactly what we were going to do, without saying a word to one another. As soon as the passengers began de-boarding the bus, we both began yelling “What happened out there. Will you talk to us? Come tell us your story.” Within seconds we had half a dozen or so passengers come over and begin telling us their account of what happened on the plane. The sergeant did nothing. We called his bluff, and he was powerless to do anything. I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I had to. When I was done photographing the passengers who spoke to us, I walked over to the sergeant and said, “OK, I’m done. You can take me to jail now.” He glared at me for about five seconds, then walked away. So that’s a little bit about what it was like being a news photographer in Kern County and working with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Officers who liked you, or were media friendly, would go out of their way to help you out, and I became friends with many of them. Others would be in your face, threatening you with arrest, in a heartbeat, seconds after you arrived on a scene. It was frustrating as hell, because they were so damn inconsistent. There was no cohesiveness or consistency to their policy. It was every officer for himself, and you were at the mercy of that officer’s whim.

I just found this. It is the photo that accompanied the United Airlines jetliner emergency landing story that I shared a few days ago. These are two of the passengers who came over to talk with us after Tom Maurer and I openly defied the Kern County sheriff's sergeant who threatened to arrest us if we attempted to talk to any of the passengers. I love the guy with a drink in each hand! As you can clearly see from this photo, these passengers were quite traumatized and clearly needed the sheriff's protection from the big, bad media.
These are two of the passengers who came over to talk with us after Tom Maurer and I openly defied the Kern County sheriff’s sergeant who threatened to arrest us if we attempted to talk to any of the passengers. I love the guy with a drink in each hand! As you can clearly see from this photo, these passengers were quite traumatized and clearly needed the sheriff’s protection from the big, bad media. And here’s a great side story: these two, who did not know each other before, got engaged!
Here is the original photo transmission we moved to the Associated Press, if you've never seen what one looks like.
Here is the original photo transmission we moved to the Associated Press, if you’ve never seen what one looks like.
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