IMC Reporter Kicked Out of Press Conference

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There was a press conference called by
Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney on
Friday, June 8, 2007 at 1 p.m. This was a
chance for Finney to explain to the press,
and to the public, what happened the previous
night in Westside Park when three
Champaign police officers were shot. The
officers hurt included Shannon Bridges,
John Murphy, and Jack Armstrong. They
were shot by Donnell Clemons, a black
man was homeless and, like many who are
on the streets, mentally ill. Officer Bridges
was shot in the shoulder, was released from
the hospital and is recovering. Donnell
Clemons was shot six times by police and
remains in the hospital.
First, it is important to state that I personally
condemn all violence and believe
that each life is precious—both the lives of
the three police officers, as well as the life
of a homeless man.
But we can see a trend of Champaign
police to keep a tight control of information
and squash any calls for accountability
in the department. In 2004, Patrick
Thompson and Martel Miller were charged
with felony eavesdropping for audio and
videotaping Champaign police officers.
Chief Finney has been against any independent
police review board in Champaign.
Now my ousting from one of his
press conferences shows his unwillingness
to hear any critical murmur about his
police department.
As I walked into the press conference,
the room was full of members from the
local press. I sat down next to Steve Bauer
of the News-Gazette and we said “hello” to
one another. I got out my pencil and paper
to take notes.
I then was tapped on the shoulder by
Troy Daniels, Deputy Chief of the Champaign
Police Department, and asked to step
out of the room. At the back of the room, I
told Daniels that I was a member of the
press. Chief R.T. Finney then stepped in
and told me I was not a legitimate member
of the press. He said, “I choose who I want
to talk to.” I told him he could call Rene
Dunn, assistant to the chief of police for
community services, to confirm that I was
indeed a member of the press. Finney said,
“Rene Dunn works for me.”
Rene Dunn was hired in early March to
handle the press. I spoke with her several
times after the March 30 incident where
Champaign police sent a 17 year-old black
youth to the hospital. She then verified that
I was a member of the press. I was given
access to the police blotter. Dunn gave me
her card and she has been very forthcoming
in answering my questions.
I talked to Dunn on the phone after the
press conference and she told me it was not
the wish of the chief that she grant me press
credentials. Dunn said it was “my mistake.”
I asked her if Champaign supported freedom
of the press. She did not answer my
Troy Daniels and another officer escorted
me out of the press conference like a common
criminal. As we were standing outside,
I had the opportunity to thank Daniels for
fulfilling my FOIA requests, the most recent
of which was delivered May 16, 2007. He
has helped to complete two of my FOIA
requests that I requested back in February.
On March 1, 2007, I met personally with
Chief Finney and Trisha Crowley about my
FOIA requests. I told them I was a journalist
for the Public i newspaper and the Urbana-
Champaign Independent Media Center.
They questioned my about my intentions
and agreed to answer my FOIA in an amended
form. Crowley sent me a fee waiver form
to complete as a member of the press, which
I signed and returned.
I later spoke with Urbana Police Chief
Mike Bily and asked him about his policy on
press conferences. “I make no differentiation
between the public and the press,” he told
me. I was welcome at his press conferences.
His department, which is smaller and doesn’t
have the resources, does not have any
spokespeople. “That’s not my style,” he said.
“Even if I disagree with someone, I will sit
down and talk with them.”
I also talked to Steve Bauer of the News-
Gazette. He said he had never seen a journalist
kicked out of a press conference.
Despite Chief Finney’s attempt to maintain
strict control of his press conference,
one tough question was asked by a
reporter for conservative radio station
WDWS 1400 who asked, “When the officers
approached the man, did they say anything
to him, was there any contact with
him that may have, or could have, provoked
this shooting?”
Finney replied with contempt, “Provoking
someone shooting us is an absurdly
ridiculous question.”
I was kicked out of the press conference
because, as an independent media journalist,
I have been consistently asking tough questions
of Chief Finney and the Champaign
Police Department. Finney reacts as if any
criticism of his department is “absurdly
ridiculous.” If the Champaign police department
was to have its way, the local press
would simply reprint their press releases.
As Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. says,
“We’ve got freedom of speech—so long as
you don’t say the wrong thing.”

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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