As journalists cover breaking news, a working relationship with emergency services personnel is essential in order to keep residents informed of incidents that impact families, neighbourhoods and communities.
However, tensions came to a head in Hamilton Tuesday evening after Global News videographer Jeremy Cohn and freelance journalist David Ritchie were arrested by Hamilton police while on assignment covering the death of a 10-year-old girl in a collision near Evans Road and Dundas Street East in Waterdown at around 6:45 p.m. Tuesday.
Andrew Collins, a freelance journalist who works for multiple Ontario news organizations including Global News, arrived at the scene after Cohn and Ritchie. He said he was able to walk up to where Ritchie, who was arrested first, and Cohn were positioned. Collins said they, along with area residents, were about 150 metres from where the collision happened.
“There was no scene established as of yet. There was no direction from any officers on where, and where we couldn’t be. Civilians were all over the scene and [Cohn and Ritchie] were not interfering with anybody. They weren’t interfering with the family,” Collins recalled Wednesday, adding officials removed the body of the girl from the scene by the time Cohn was on scene.
A short time later, Collins said police began putting up tape. He started filming when a Hamilton police officer moved to arrest Cohn, who was outside the perimeter established by police.
“I turned around and I saw Jeremy getting thrown to the ground, his tripod go flying, phone get thrown to the ground, and backpack taken off,” Collins said.
“I ran right to the tape, run back over, and this cop is – (a) huge guy, probably 6’11” or whatever he was – on top of Jeremy, knee in the back.”
WATCH: Global News videographer, freelance journalist arrested in Hamilton. Mike Drolet reports.
Cohn was restrained by the officer using plastic zip ties and led into the back of a nearby police vehicle. The officer was the only one involved in the arrest.
In the seconds before the arrest, Cohn’s camera was recording and could be heard calling police on his phone.
“They have put up tape just now and we’re well, well behind the tape. Just so you know,” Cohn could be heard saying.
“I’ve asked you to get out of here,” a Hamilton police officer was then heard saying.
“Don’t touch me. Do not touch me!” Cohn yelled.
“You’re under arrest. You’re under arrest. Put your camera down. You’re under arrest too,” the officer said.
“OK. OK. No problem,” Cohn said, before being escorted away from his camera.
Cohn was released without charges a short time later.
WATCH: Raw video captured by freelance photographer Andrew Collins shows Global News videographer’s arrest in Hamilton
Ritchie, who was not working for Global News while responding to the collision, told Global News Tuesday his equipment was briefly seized by police and he was kept in the back of a cruiser for two hours after being restrained by police. Ritchie was charged with obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest. He is scheduled to appear in a Hamilton court on June 15.
Mackay Taggart, news director of Global News Toronto, said Global News is concerned about what happened.
“We take the security and the safety of our staff very seriously – that’s a paramount concern of ours – and we’re just very dismayed that this had to happen and also had to happen against the backdrop of such a tragic and sad situation in Waterdown,” Taggart said.
“We’re treating this situation very seriously and we’ll be following up with Hamilton police and the appropriate bodies in the province to seek accountability and find out exactly what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Taggart said it’s important journalists respect the work of police and that officers respect the job journalists have to do.
“We have an obligation to present to our audience and to the public the situation as we see it and as truthfully and honestly as possible, and police yesterday unfortunately disrupted that work.”
It’s a point that Collins echoed, saying it’s journalists’ jobs to capture the news.
“A lot of people are going on the fact that you shouldn’t be shooting a child death, but unfortunately a lot of road safety campaigns sort of stem from news stories that we do like this.”
Hamilton Police Service Chief Eric Girt was not available for an on-camera interview with Global News on Wednesday about the arrests, but issued a written statement in response to the incident.
“As Chief of Police, I take the arrest of any member of the media seriously. As a result, I am reviewing this incident in the context of what transpired yesterday,” Girt wrote in part.
“I encourage anyone who has information or evidence pertaining to the collision investigation or subsequent events to come forward with that information or evidence.”
Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, said he is upset with news of the arrests. He said he is aware of at least six journalists being arrested in Canada over the past year while working.
“The problem is that this is not an isolated incident,” Henheffer said.
“It goes to show that there is a serious problem with accountability, transparency and the relationship between the police and journalists.”
Henheffer said his organization is trying to find out more about what happened, but hasn’t been successful.
“I spent hours last night and this morning trying to reach the police force just to get their side of the story. I’m not trying to pin anyone to the wall,” he said.
“We just want resolve this and get the charges against this journalist dropped, but they have been completely unwilling to talk to us.”
The organization is calling for an outside agency to lead an investigation into Tuesday’s incident and Henheffer is calling for more police training.
“There needs to be more oversight and there needs to be a public inquiry into what happened in this incident to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
“This one police officer is on the force. He believes he has the power to act in this way. There’s a serious problem with training. This is a systemic issue, not just a case of one bad apple.”
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