First things first: When it came to the shooting and stabbing death of a Purdue University student on campus Jan. 21, police on the scene did an amazing bit of work, shutting down any remaining threat efficiently and effectively. The West Lafayette campus was safer for the job they did.
But in the triage of the moment, as police officers surged to contain the Electrical Engineering Building, did securing the scene include a step across First Amendment lines when a photographer from a student newspaper got closer than officers either expected or cared to see?
We have one side with stark and disturbing details — of confiscated equipment, of detention and bullying of the photographer for hours. The other side isn’t offering its version just yet. An internal investigation comes first, in answer to the demands of The Exponent and pleas from national press groups. That, the university says, will take two weeks.
But the account offered by the student journalist amounts to a chilling bit of police control, even if it came during an intensely stressful situation — and even if there’s the possibility that it’s tempered by Purdue’s official context.
“I believe the photographer that it all happened,” said Pat Kuhnle, publisher of the Exponent, a student-run newspaper that covers Purdue but isn’t an official part of the university. “And I believe we have a real problem here — a pattern that has to stop.”
The situation started in tense moments on the eastern edge of campus, just after noon that Tuesday. One Purdue student, Cody Cousins, is suspected of going into a basement classroom of the Electrical Engineering Building and stabbing and shooting another student, Andrew Boldt. Boldt died in the attack. West Lafayette police arrested Cousins minutes later on a sidewalk along Northwestern Avenue.
As emergency text messages went out to those with Purdue accounts, Michael Takeda said he crossed a skywalk from the Materials and Electrical Engineering Building into the Electrical Engineering Building in search of photos around the scene. He says the building wasn’t sealed off by police at that point, and when he realized the building was being cleared, he started backtracking to leave. That’s when, he said, he was confronted by police.
According to his account in a complaint filed with Purdue Police Chief John Cox, police told him to get on the ground. He said that once he was on his knees and had identified himself as a member of The Exponent, police tackled him, pinning his camera equipment under him.
Takeda said police detained him for two hours. He said police kept his camera equipment for another hour on top of that. At the police department, Takeda said an officer told him Exponent staff was “a pain in the ass” and that he was lucky he didn’t get shot, adding: “I hope you get charged then thrown out of school. And you know what you’ll be doing next year? Working at McDonald’s.”
Late last week, Purdue responded to a formal complaint from the National Press Photographers Association with a promise of an investigation. With that came an initial defense from Steven Schultz, Purdue’s legal counsel, who said the university was “hesitant to second-guess the essential and often life-saving judgment calls made on the spot” by police in that moment.
Kuhnle said he doesn’t hold out much hope the university will back away from what happened, even if his staff is protected by the Privacy Protection Act, a 1980 federal law meant to prevent police and other government officials from confiscating notes, photos and equipment from journalists.
“I think [because of the] publicity, they didn’t have a choice,” Kuhnle said of Purdue’s investigation. “I think our staff are somewhat targeted, because they’re students and they’re seen as that they can be pushed around.”
In a letter filed with Carol Shelby, Purdue director of environmental health and public safety, Kuhnle referenced a similar complaint filed in November 2010, when a Purdue officer blocked an Exponent reporter from taking video when a voter passed out at a ballot station in the Stewart Center. Kuhnle said The Exponent didn’t get much of a response from that case. (A video of that 12-minute encounter lives on.)
“I don’t want to predetermine what [Purdue is] going to say this time,” Kuhnle said, “but I have a pretty good feel for what to expect.”
Schultz’s assessment that Jan. 21 was a stressful situation might qualify as an understatement.
Even then, and in every other hectic scene where emergency personnel and media mix, there are some unwritten rules of engagement — how close is close enough and how soon is soon enough when developments should be shared with the public. (For the record: I was at the scene Jan. 21 and spent much of it being reminded of a police-ordered perimeter. I’m guessing we all were considered pains in the ass to some degree by police working the scene.)
To assume we’re on the same side would be wrong; it’s more like a healthy, albeit wary, respect for each other. As they say, we both have jobs to do.
But Purdue has a real problem on its hands if officers are working under the assumption that stifling the media is standard operating procedure — or even the best use of time during a shooting investigation.
The Purdue police side of this will matter. But the university isn’t going to be able to sweep aside the account of a student journalist facing the choice between a story, arrest, losing his equipment and an officer allegedly threatening to bring an end to a college career.
The President Mitch Daniels era at Purdue is one that understands perception matters as much as the real thing. In this case, the perception, at the very least, isn’t so good.
Dave Bangert is a columnist for the Journal & Courier, Lafayette. Contact him at email@example.com