SFPD’s Dangerfield steps into media mine field

After receiving complaints from major media organizations that are frustrated by independent journalists trying to cover the same events, the San Francisco Police department responded by revoking press passes from several online outlets.

While police policy specifically states that press passes are reserved for outlets that regularly cover breaking news about fire and police events, these official passes also allow reporters access to government events and entitle them to sit in the press section during Board of Supervisor meetings.

“I was literally in shock when they were saying that I wouldn’t be able to use my press pass,” said Bill Wilson, a freelance photographer who has covered San Francisco for more than five years, and used his press pass to cover President Barack Obama’s flight into San Francisco International Airport.

Although he hasn’t found himself unable to cover a story since the police revoked his press pass, he did say that he decided to not cover a political event at the airport because he believed he would need a valid pass to get in.

Even at City Hall, Wilson has found his press pass to be a necessity. On one occasion when he forgot his pass at home, a Sheriff’s deputy told him he couldn’t enter the media area; the deputy eventually convinced his supervisor to let Wilson in after vouching for him.

Lt. Troy Dangerfield, a police spokesman, told me that although the police hold press conferences in a room that’s big enough to hold every interested reporter, other facilities, such as the room the mayor uses for press conferences, are much smaller. People from the major networks complained that they were being crowded out by their independent counterparts, and the police department responded by revoking the press passes of any reporters who hadn’t recently covered a breaking news story involving the police or fire departments, said Dangerfield.

Reporting for the San Francisco Sentinel, one of several outlets now without a police-issued press pass, Pat Murphy writes that Dangerfield told him the complaints were “from, but not limited to, KGO and KTVU.”

But when reached by phone, both Kevin Keeshan, the news director for KGO television, and Tony Bonilla, the senior assignment editor for KTVU, were adamant that their stations never requested the police revoke other reporter’s press passes.

Both men seemed genuinely surprised by the suggestion and emphasized that no one from their stations would ever advocate that other reporters should be denied accreditation.

When asked about the conflicting stories, Dangerfield said that all he told Murphy was the complaints came from “the major media.” He said that he cited only KGO and KTVU as examples of major media, and that he never suggested they were the specific source of the complaint.

Dangerfield would not tell me what media outlets had complained. He said they had approached him in confidence, and he would only tell me it was “major news organizations and individuals.”

When I suggested that the information should be available under the California Public Records Act, Dangerfield implied my request would likely be fruitless and compared it to requesting the identity of someone who tips off the police to a crime. In this case the crime would be abusing the police press pass, he suggested.

Dangerfield said that the passes issued by his department could potentially be abused by dishonest reporters and said that the passes can even be used to get discount tickets to Disneyland.

He said that any reporters who want to have their press pass reinstated simply must begin covering fires and police events. Under state law, working journalists are allowed to cross police lines to report on fires.

Dangerfield said that this is the purpose of the police press pass, and journalists can always print their own passes to help identify themselves as reporters.

He said that the police press passes are not designed to gain access to events at City Hall and that other city agencies are free to create their own press accreditation process.

But Dangerfield offered no evidence that the major media’s complaints had anything to do with their struggle to cover fires or other incidents involving the police — the specified function of the passes. Instead, he said mainstream media complained to him that “we always have to be in the back,” a gripe far more common during scheduled press conferences than when news breaks.

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