Channel M is preparing to file a complaint against the Vancouver police department after officers detained a camera operator for the multicultural television station who was at the scene of a police shooting last month and seized his videotape.
In a phone interview on January 2, Channel M news director Dianne Collins said that with the help of counsel, the station is putting together a letter to be filed with B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
“Our position is the same as any news organization where its employees are basically being detained—and not lawfully detained—and they’ve been prevented from doing their job, and that is not acceptable,” Collins told the Georgia Straight.
Collins said station management will also seek to discuss the incident—which saw camera operator Ricky Tong detained for a few hours and his tape of the aftermath of a police shooting seized—with Vancouver police chief Jim Chu.
“It’s interesting that the police just acted in a heavy-handed manner in this case,” Collins said. “There was no need for that. We’re not obstructing the course of justice.”
Const. Tim Fanning, a VPD spokesperson, recalled that he was at the scene, and he claimed that everything worked out well for both parties.
“We reviewed the tape with the investigators, and they [Channel M] gave us a copy of the tape, and they had their copy, and we went on our way,” Fanning told the Straight. “But otherwise we spoke with them at the scene, and they were cooperative. Obviously, they were concerned; they want to make sure they had their tape, and we’re happy to give them their tape. We just wanted to make sure that there was nothing on there of evidentiary value.”
Fanning denied that the police were heavy-handed in dealing with Channel M. “I didn’t see any problems,” he said. “Maybe they got a different impression before I got there; I don’t know. If you’re asking me if there’s any heavy-handedness, I’ll tell you there wasn’t at all, not from what I saw.”
On the afternoon of December 10, 2007, Tong was driving past the Shell gasoline station at the corner of 41st Avenue and Knight Street on the way to an assignment when he heard gunshots.
Tong turned around, parked the station’s vehicle nearby, and started filming. When police asked Tong to surrender his tape to them, he refused. Tong was declared a witness by the police, and he was escorted to a commandeered bus where other witnesses were also taken.
Tong has been with Channel M since the station launched in 2003. In a brief phone interview with the Straight, Tong said that the police shouldn’t have detained him. “In a way, they stopped my filming,” he said.
Reuben Simeon Coleman, 21, a Lower Mainland man, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with a lone police officer at the gas station, according to the VPD.
Channel M dispatched a team to the scene for live broadcasts of the aftermath of the shooting incident. Bhupinder Hundal, the assignment coordinator and a producer at the station, was able to negotiate with the police for Tong’s release. A copy of Tong’s video was transmitted from Channel M’s microwave van at the scene to the station’s headquarters in Chinatown before the tape was handed over to the police.
Collins said it wasn’t the first time the station has been told by the VPD to turn over a videotape. On all previous occasions, Channel M turned down such requests, thereby compelling police to seek warrants. Collins noted that getting an order from the court is the proper procedure.
“All they have to do is get a subpoena, and we’re happy to cooperate with them,” Collins said. “But to do what they did, saying at that point—when Ricky [Tong] said no, he wouldn’t give them the tape—that he was a witness. I mean, he wasn’t a witness. He didn’t see the actual shooting.”
Police watchdog Rider Cooey has closely followed the aftermath of Channel M’s encounter with the VPD. He intends to raise the matter at the Wednesday (January 16) meeting of the police board chaired by Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan.
“The police board needs to ask the police department to conduct a review of their policy regarding detention of media representatives and their tapes or images or notes and their material,” Cooey told the Straight.
Collins said that it’s important in a free society for media to work in an independent manner. “All we ask is that our rights are respected as much as we respect the right of the police to do their job,” she said.