Newspaper Reporter Arrested Covering Story
By Bill Lawson
Editor’s Note: This is a first-person account of Bill Lawson’s arrest by a state trooper while attempting to take pictures at a house fire in Maumelle on Monday evening.
MAUMELLE — Having lived 59 years, battled cancer, worn the country’s uniform for 26 years and proudly worked as a journalist — a profession I always admired — I thought I’d seen it all. That is until Monday night, when I was arrested and charged with a criminal offense just for trying to do my job and take photos of a residential fire in Maumelle.
Being arrested, searched, having my camera, reporter’s notebook and billfold confiscated, humiliated in front of friends and people I write about every week was a difficult way to be arrested for the first time in my life. The only other time I wore a pair of handcuffs was 10 years ago during a training class at the Law Enforcement Training Academy in Camden.
When I was told that I was being arrested it seemed like a dream. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. But I knew better than to argue with a state trooper who obviously had an attitude.
Although I was arrested and handcuffed, not once was I read my rights. In fact, the State Police trooper told me I was being charged with obstructing governmental operations and one other offense. I can’t remember what the second one was. It was such an incredulous feeling to be stopped from doing my job, much less to be arrested, that it was difficult to consider what was really happening.
All I was doing was what Capt. Gloria Weakland, State Police Troop A commander, advised me to do when I inquired via telephone months back about a fatality accident near Cabot and talked to her about covering the news. Capt. Weakland told me that I was welcome at any accident or incident scene and for me to approach the trooper there and identify myself with the news media and that I would have access to do my job.
That’s all I was trying to do Monday evening. I didn’t think the trooper in Maumelle had seen the press credential on my windshield and I approached him as she suggested to let him know who I was and why I was there. That’s when he said he was going to arrest me for approaching him. He told me that he saw the press sign on my windshield and the ID around my neck but that it didn’t mean anything to him.
Life has been difficult for me since my battle with cancer. The cancer, radiation treatments and multiple surgeries have all left their marks on me. Thank God I’m cancer-free, but I’m not half the young man who used to run the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds. In fact, this past weekend has been one of the most painful in my life. The medicine that I still must take often depletes my potassium and my muscles hurt so badly it’s very difficult to move. I actually have to hold on to something to pull my way in and out of my vehicle so that I don’t generate more pain in my legs. I use my arms and hands as much as possible to keep from using my legs to even lift me out of chairs because of the pain.
Of course, being overweight makes it even more difficult. For the first two years of my battle with cancer, I had to take steroid shots along with the 18 different kinds of medicine, to even feel like getting out of bed. A combination of the cancer’s damage to my kidneys, bladder and colon and the steroids added about 100 pounds to my already large frame. But I tell people everyday that I’d rather be fat and alive than skinny and dead. My physician tells me that some of the kidney medicine I take contributes to the retention of fluids in spite of other medicine to help relieve that problem.
The combination of medical problems and being overweight makes for a slow-moving wide body. Walking is a chore and an occasional run or climbing stairs leaves me breathless. After being handcuffed and forced to stand still for more than 30 minutes beside his Arkansas State Police vehicle with unit number A-54 on it, I couldn’t move a muscle. When I squirmed, the trooper was yelling at me to stop resisting. Standing with my arms behind me was difficult and painful to the point of being unbearable. I know what resisting is and I did nothing that could be considered that. The too-tight handcuffs hurt my wrists and I have scratches from them on my right arm where the trooper hit it while slapping the handcuffs on me. All of that and the pain of standing still for so long was unbearable, but I knew better than to complain or suffer the trooper’s wrath.
His demeanor was abusive, intimidating and downright scary.
Some of my friends on the Maumelle Fire Department came over to check on me. I was still 50 to 75 yards away from the minor fire and they all wondered what was going on. They asked if they could help and I told my publisher’s son-in-law, who is a firefighter, to call him in case I needed to be bailed out of jail. The firemen later told me they couldn’t believe I had been arrested for attempting to take photos far away from the fire. In fact, they called the Maumelle Police Department to come and check on me because they said they were worried about me.
After my boss’ son-in-law left, the trooper came over and asked if I was somebody special. I told him no, I’m just a reporter. Then he wanted to know whom I asked the fireman to call and I explained that it was my boss. He then asked which newspaper I worked for and I tried to explain that I worked for several newspapers owned by Stephens Media. He wanted to argue with me, telling me I’d mentioned a specific newspaper earlier. Every time I tried to explain, the trooper would interrupt me, like a trial attorney would do when they’re trying to discredit you.
I wanted to tell him that I needed to sit down but I was afraid he’d charge me with something else, or worse. After all, he had the gun and authority of a state trooper and I was just a journalist with a notepad and a camera. As mad as he was, I feared for my safety. He had roughed me up a little bit, pulling my left hand behind my back and then demanding that I let go of the camera in my right hand. I wasn’t about to drop a $1,500 camera with a $400 strobe light on it. He grabbed it and yelled at me until I let it go. He took it, walked off behind me and later placed the camera on the trunk of his vehicle.
After he visited with several Maumelle police officers, he came up to me and asked me, “If I take these handcuffs off you, are you going to behave?”
I was stunned. From the moment he told me to turn around because I was under arrest for taking his photo, I attempted to follow his every command for fear of what he might do. I was handcuffed and defenseless. Not that I’d have tried to resist; I have too much respect for law enforcement officers to do that, even when I know I didn’t do anything wrong.
As I was handcuffed, he tried to tell me that I’d stuck the camera “up in my face, inches from my nose, snapping it over and over attempting to blind me.” I tried to explain that the camera had been set on motor drive in order to capture the firefighters in action and that I had actually only snapped it once. He wanted to argue and said that I held it down for 10 seconds or longer, telling me that he knew all about cameras.
Even hours after the arrest, it all seems like a dream. A very bad dream. Maumelle Police Chief Sam Williams told me that I should file a complaint against the state trooper. I told him that wasn’t my style because I have so much respect for all police officers and the difficult jobs they do.
I’ve worked closely with state troopers and count many of them as friends. In April 2006 when a trooper sergeant died out on a roadblock, I was so inspired when I attended his funeral in Searcy that I wrote a newspaper column tribute to him and all troopers, entitled “The Thin Blue Line,” that ended up being reprinted in the Arkansas State Police Association’s magazine.
After the episode, Chief Williams told me he might have yelled at me if he thought I’d overstepped my bounds, but he said he certainly wouldn’t have arrested me for just doing my job.
Standing on a public street in a city where I’ve covered much more serious fires than this one, I couldn’t have believed that my First Amendment rights to cover and report the news would have been abridged. Even worse than the painful handcuffing episode, the state trooper turned me around so that I could not even see the firefighters in action putting out the fire. That was adding insult to injury. Now I can’t even report on their outstanding efforts to save a home — because I wasn’t allowed to see it and I can’t report what I didn’t see.
Bill Lawson covers Pulaski County government for Stephens Media’s Central Arkansas Newspapers, but currently is assigned to Maumelle.