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Police vs. press: tension

March 20, 1997

As a former NYPD police inspector with years of dealing with news reporters put it, there is the reporter's version and the police version, and somewhere in the middle is the truth.

Yesterday, Julia Campbell, a 30-year-old free-lance reporter for the New York Times - which in Campbell's case means she works full time at police headquarters but receives no benefits - was arrested while covering the funeral procession of rapper Biggie Smalls.

Police charged her with disorderly conduct, alleging she attempted to interfere with a police action in a crowd that had jumped atop car roofs on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

According to a police report, Campbell "urged others in the crowd, numbering about 20, not to move. She then began to push others into the police. Lt. Joel Melamed, sensing danger, discharged pepper mace above the head of this crowd. Miss Campbell, who was again directed to move, pushed Lt. Melamed in the chest and attempted to get past him. She was then placed under arrest for disorderly conduct."

Earlier, the report says, she was "told by Capt. David McAndrew that she was interfering with police operations. She then proceeded to call Capt. McAndrew a - - - and demanded every officer's badge number."

An unedited NY1 videotape of the incident shows Campbell amid cops as they attempted to calm people in the street. She is heard saying, "Why did you do that?" The tape then shows a sergeant grabbing her arm. The tape does not show her inciting the crowd, nor does it show her pushing Melamed or cursing McAndrew.

Campbell's arrest is the most dramatic example of the escalating tensions between the police and the media in the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. According to Daily News attorney Eve Burton, at least five city reporters and photographers have been arrested or had their credentials pulled while covering news events over the past year.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir has not held an "in-house" news conference with reporters based at Police Plaza in nearly a year.

Breaking with at least two decades of tradition, his spokeswoman Marilyn Mode has refused to give reporters either her beeper or home phone number.

Printable versionAt a recent Citizens Crime Commission breakfast Giuliani said reduction of crime was the Police Department's first priority. "Public relations is second."

Yesterday, he defended the department's arrest of Campbell, saying of Chief Joseph Dunne, the commander of Brooklyn North, where the funeral procession occurred: "He is responsible for one of the largest drops in crime in the city . . . The police were dealing with a highly volatile . . . situation."

Giuliani promised a full review of the incident by the Police Department, adding that the department is capable of investigating itself, a view contrary to his opinion as a federal prosecutor and one contrary to that of the Mollen Commission on Police Corruption, which supported an independent police monitor that Giuliani vetoed.

Campbell did not return a phone call; sources said the Times is not letting her talk. But metropolitan editor Michael Oreskes said, "She was doing what she should have been doing."

Yesterday, The New York Press Club, which has complained that the department has interfered with the rights of reporters gathering news, wrote to the mayor, calling the arrest of Campbell "shameful."

As for Campbell, she arrived at Police Plaza but a month ago and immediately tangled with Mode. Mode became incensed when Campbell asked her if Safir had been summoned to City Hall after he announced the purchase of hollow-point bullets apparently without checking with the mayor.

Two days later, when questions arose about Safir's heart bypass surgery, Mode refused to provide Campbell with information, even as she prepared a news release on the subject. "Don't you have any respect for the man's family?" Mode shouted at her. Mode then told another reporter she did not think Campbell "would work out here."

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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1997 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.