Media access to fires and other breaking stories in the city of Phoenix--the meat and potatoes of the local mainstream press--has been thrown into doubt by a trial that ended November 20.
KTVK (Channel 3) van driver Jim Cox was found guilty of disobeying a police officer at the scene of a fire, a misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of six months in jail. But Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth R. Finn disregarded the city prosecutor's recommendation for a 20-day jail term and sentenced Cox instead to a suspended $19 fine.
It was a symbolic penalty that concluded a symbolic trial.
"I think it's outrageous the prosecutor took it this far," says KTVK news director Phil Alvidrez, who predicts that the decision could have a chilling effect on the relationship between the Valley's news-gathering organizations and the Phoenix Police Department. "I think it's outrageous that a police officer kept a news person from doing his job," says Alvidrez.
Cox was arrested July 7 while he was providing a live television feed from the scene of a major fire at 39th Avenue and Lincoln Street. The blaze had started in dry grass and spread quickly to an industrial yard, setting off explosions and belching black smoke that could be seen across the Valley.
Cox responded to the fire so quickly that he got there ahead of police. Video from the scene shows that Cox had parked his van about 300 feet from the flames and was not blocking access for fire trucks. And he hadn't crossed a police or fire perimeter because none had been established. Alvidrez, who was monitoring the video Cox was capturing on a mast-mounted camera, testified that Cox was cool-headed and aware of the situation.
When police officers Mark Potts and Chris Graham arrived at the scene, they were flagged down by a business owner who was livid. Potts tells New Times the woman had made four calls to the fire department shortly after the blaze erupted. But her calls had been routed through a location in Mesa, Potts says, diverting firefighters and wasting precious minutes. Potts says the woman unloaded her fury on him and his partner.
Potts says he was trying to calm down the woman when he spotted Cox's van. From his perspective, the news van looked like it was in trouble. But before he could drive over to investigate, Officer Graham got out of the squad car and refused to budge.
It seems Officer Graham has a thing about fire. "I have some pesonal knowledge about Officer Graham," Potts testified. "He was in some house fires as a kid, and fire bothers him." Potts said he convinced Graham to get back into the car, and they drove to Cox's van.
"Do you know what kind of danger you're in?" Potts says he asked Cox. The officer testified that Cox indicated he was shutting down and intended to leave the area. So the officers left him.
Ten minutes later, testimony shows, Cox finally started taking the video mast down so he could leave. But before he could, Potts and Graham returned and arrested him. Potts drove Cox away in the squad car, leaving the fire-timid Graham behind to drive the news van.
The only problem was, Cox had the keys.
So Graham hotfooted it to the fallback position and left the $150,000 van in harm's way. Graham eventually had to go back in one more time and drive the van out.
"I thought it was ridiculous," says Cox, 25, who is now an editor for the station and doesn't miss driving the truck. "I thought, let me move the van, then you can arrest me."
Channel 3's attorneys argued that Potts ignored his own department's guidelines, which state that in non-crime-scene disasters such as major fires, members of the media are to be warned of the danger, but then left to their own devices. If a reporter wants to die for a story, that's supposed to be his or her decision.
Potts says he was aware of the department's policy, but on July 7 decided that the situation was just too dangerous to leave Cox where he was. He argued that his duty to protect Cox from danger outweighed Cox's prerogative to cover breaking news.
In her ruling, Judge Finn sided with Potts and the prosecution, saying the media policy was in direct conflict with an Arizona law that makes it a misdemeanor to disobey a peace officer at the scene of a fire. Finn said she was obligated to side with the statute, not the police department's media policy.
That doesn't seem to bother the police or fire departments, whose spokespeople doubt that Finn's ruling will affect the "goodworking relationship" they have with the press. Policespokesman Mike McCullough disagrees with Finn's view that there's a conflict between the law and Chief Dennis Garrett's media policy, which was published in 1993.
The policy reads, in part: "Officers are reminded to permit access to all news media at locations where there is no crime scene ... [which] include all fires. ... If there are dangers present, the officer should warn the media ... and then permit him/her to enter."
Sounds clear. Unfortunately, it bears no resemblance to reality. Technically, police officers will tell you, there's no such thing as a non-crime-scene fire. Until arson is ruled out (a determination that can take days), every fire is a potential crime scene.
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And, as for reporters valiantly risking their lives, that's out, too, says fire department spokesman Phil Yeager.
"We own that fire scene. We're not going to let you decide what's safe or not," he says, adding that firefighters are "extremely accommodating" to the press.
Chief Garrett's policy doesn't reflect the actual practices of police officers and firefighters at fires, and a judge has found that it's in conflict with the law, anyway. So does the chief have any intention of changing it?
"Why? The policy works," says McCullough.