Don’t give the NYPD a pass on press credentials

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Come next January, when just about every single NYPD press pass issued to the city’s reporters expires, I will be joining the herd at One Police Plaza to get mine renewed.

I will do this begrudgingly. It’s not just the months it takes to book an appointment or the battle with police officers over what article can actually count toward renewing my pass. It’s the fundamental idea of an incredibly powerful police force determining, in essence, who gets to be a reporter and who doesn’t.

That’s lousy and anti-democratic.

Let me just say that the first time I was ever granted a press pass, it was a watershed moment. In 2012, I was a rookie reporter for a Queens newspaper with all the wide-eyed wonder of someone finally getting to print stories somewhere other than a college publication. When I submitted my stories for approval – I’ll get to how that works in a moment – and the NYPD deemed me worthy, I hung the pass around my neck with pride. On the 7 train back to Queens, I couldn’t stop staring at it. Me, a reporter with a press pass, like Clark Kent or something.

Four years later, the sheen of the laminated credential has worn off, literally and figuratively. Hey, I’m a full-fledged reporter, and cynicism comes with the job. But I’ve also been struck by the ways in which an NYPD-issued press pass is increasingly required for the basics of my profession, beyond its original intent to allow a reporter to cross a police or fire line. Taking notes in some courtrooms and walking into Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Midtown office are just a couple of instances when the laminated badge with my photo has been needed. Had the NYPD rejected my application, working as a reporter would have been much more difficult.

I’ve often wondered: Why isn’t a credential from my news organization good enough? I’m now a freelancer, and it’s certainly harder, though possible, to wrangle a credential from an organization I’m not working for full-time. Why does the NYPD, which as a law enforcement agency lacks the capacity to exercise sound editorial judgment, simply get to decide how easy or hard it will be for me to do my work?

After scrutinizing the press pass application, I have even more questions. The NYPD asks for a date of birth and a home address. In order to grant me a press pass, why do the police need to know where I live and how old I am? While the application states that a reporter must produce six stories that prove he or she has covered events “sponsored by the City of New York which are open to members of the press,” I have been grilled on stories that allegedly lacked a sufficient policing angle to demonstrate I’m truly in need of an NYPD pass. For a rookie reporter without the necessary clips, this requirement is something of a Catch-22 – how do you produce stories that would have required a press pass in the first place?

Just as the NYPD has the power to issue a press credential, it also has the same disturbing ability to take one away. A citizen journalist and longtime City Hall gadfly, Rafael Martínez Alequin, couldn’t get his press pass renewed in 2007 because the Bloomberg administration believed he wasn’t a legitimate reporter, despite his indefatigable presence at nearly every press conference. It took a federal lawsuit to return it.

In 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was at its height, the Bloomberg administration emailed a memo to the press reacting to a report on the plight of 26 reporters who were arrested while covering the demonstrations. To justify the arrests, the Bloomberg memo noted only five had a “valid” NYPD press credential. Beyond the fact that police harassed reporters and protesters alike, overreacting to a largely nonviolent movement, the arrests of non-credentialed reporters were breezily dismissed by the mayor’s office.

The message? If you don’t have that credential, you don’t matter.

The NYPD has been issuing press credentials of some form for more than a half century, and other cities do the same. For the most part, there is little more than private grumbling over this practice. It’s an accepted reality.

But we should all question the nature of a law enforcement agency unilaterally weighing in on a reporter’s legitimacy. That should be up to news organizations and the people they serve; if that’s insufficient, an agency could be set up – independent of the police – to credential reporters.

As I said before, I don’t know if I can afford to forsake an NYPD press pass in a city that demands such specific accreditation. This is my livelihood. I also don’t expect the practice to change, when the police will say they need to know how to differentiate reporters from other civilians at a crime scene. I get that.

However, we can begin to think critically about the long-standing practice. It’s the least we can do.

Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn. His work has appeared in such publications as the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.