Atlanta Police Department officers detain a filmmaker June 15 at the public safety training center site, where he was working on a documentary about tree-sitting protesters, before pressuring him to delete the footage in exchange for going free. The image is from footage he shot of the entire incident, which civil rights attorneys say violated the First Amendment and which APD is now internally investigating.

By John Ruch

The Atlanta Police Department (APD) is investigating its detention of a protest-documenting journalist, first revealed by SaportaReport, that civil rights attorneys say violated the First Amendment.

“Our agency has opened an internal investigation into the incident,” said APD spokesperson Sgt. John Chafee about the June 15 detention, where a filmmaker documenting the Atlanta public safety training center protests was pressured by officers to delete his footage.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) also may have been involved in the incident but is not investigating. “We don’t have a request for an investigation,” said GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), a New York-based nonprofit that tracks infringements of free-press rights, is joining local civil rights attorneys in condemning the officers’ actions. Just yesterday, the FPF released its annual report of journalists arrested or detained in the line of duty, which now may have to be updated with the Atlanta case. The report notes that protest coverage is where most journalists are arrested.

“Retaliatory arrests of journalists for doing their jobs are a quintessential First Amendment violation,” said Seth Stern, FPF’s director of advocacy, in an email. “Police who needlessly arrest journalists or seize their notes and equipment should face public backlash and journalists should sue whenever the law allows it.

“Police cannot circumvent journalists’ Constitutional rights by singling them out for harassment under the guise of laws that police do not enforce against others,” added Stern. “We condemn any arrest or other harassment of journalists who are attempting to report the news and pose no risk to anyone’s safety.”

The filmmaker said he is not planning to sue and asked not to be named by SaportaReport. However, he is a professional whose work has appeared in such outlets as CNN and the Discovery Channel. He said he did not file complaints with police agencies due to the belief they would not investigate.

The filmmaker was working on a film focused on tree-sitting protesters who encamped in the forest to prevent the training center construction, which he said he later pitched to national outlets but was unable to get published. He said he was walking through the forest with his cameras and while wearing a vest bearing the word “press.” He was stopped by APD officers, including a major identified by the filmmaker and an embroidered shirt as Jeff Cantin, and another officer, identified only as “Mike,” who the filmmaker believes was with the GBI.

Mike and the APD major then pressured the filmmaker at length to delete his footage in exchange for going free instead of being arrested on an accusation of trespass. Meanwhile, the filmmaker continued filming the entire encounter. He provided SaportaReport with an edited and captioned excerpt of the incident.

“It’s interesting that Major Cantin felt so comfortable repeatedly trying to intimidate a journalist in front of many other APD officers,” the filmmaker said when informed by SaportaReport about the APD internal investigation. “That said, he took his lead from ‘Mike,’ who I think was GBI, and whose conduct was far more egregious. It raises an obvious question: What had the APD done that day in the forest that they didn’t want the public to see?”

Drago Cepar Jr., a civil rights attorney who advised the filmmaker, is also representing another journalist and dozens of protesters arrested during demonstrations related to the training center or other policing reform issues. Cepar says all of the incidents are part of an APD pattern of retaliatory arrests for advocating causes the police do not like.

“Retaliating against citizens and journalists for exercising their First Amendment rights is plainly illegal under the Constitution and should never have happened,” said Cepar in response to APD’s internal investigation. “We cannot have a free country if people are intimidated by the government for their speech.”

Gerry Weber, another civil rights attorney, previously said the incident is similar to others in APD’s long history of lawsuits for unlawful arrests targeting people photographing or filming officers. Weber has said that encouraging a journalist to delete footage in exchange for dropping a criminal charge is unconstitutional and is also grounds for firing the officers involved under APD policy created as a result of previous lawsuits.

Another journalist represented by Cepar is Ryan Fatica, who was arrested by APD on a Georgia State Patrol officer’s orders during a May 14 training center protest in Freedom Park. Fatica, who filmed the order of his own arrest, said he was later released because no officer even wrote down what he was allegedly charged with, but that APD kept his reporter’s notebook and has not returned it. Fatica is planning to sue.

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