Purdue Exponent, national photojournalism organization ask for investigation into photographer's detention

INDIANA — The Purdue Exponent and the National Press Photographers Association are asking for an investigation into the treatment of a photo editor after police detained him for several hours and took his camera equipment while he was covering a campus shooting last week.

The Exponent letters — one sent Jan. 23 by news adviser Carl Abernathy and Publisher Pat Kuhnle, and another sent Tuesday by Michael Takeda, the student who was detained — describe aggressive treatment by police toward Takeda and demand answers from the department about the incident. Separately, National Press Photographers Association General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher condemned the incident in a Jan. 24 letter to university officials and offered to help the department develop ways to prevent future confrontations.

None of the Purdue officials addressed in the letters returned repeated requests for comment.

Each of the three letters asks for some form of investigation into the incident. In their letters, Takeda and The Exponent officials demanded investigations into his treatment by police officers, explanations of why his camera was seized and what, if anything, officials did to his equipment. The Exponent officials asked for an investigation into “abusive comments made by police officers at the scene, en route and at police headquarters” and a report on the findings.

Takeda also asked for reimbursement for repairs to his camera equipment. He wrote that he used his cameras to break his fall when police pushed him to the ground at the scene, and now one of his lenses isn’t working correctly.

Though Takeda was detained for several hours, he wrote that he wasn’t “cuffed or restrained at any point” — an indication, to him, that he was not seen as a threat and was instead targeted “because [he was] a student journalist at The Exponent.” After Takeda was released, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte assisted The Exponent in retrieving Takeda’s confiscated camera equipment.

In their letter, Abernathy and Kuhnle detailed “threatening and abusive comments” made to Takeda both on the scene and while he was detained. (The descriptions come from an account of the incident Takeda wrote the night it happened. Takeda also describes the comments in his own letter.)

When first approached by police, Takeda tried to identify himself as an Exponent journalist, but an officer “who pushed him down said The Exponent’s already been a ‘pain in the ass,’” according to the Exponent officials’ letter.

Later, according to the letter, an officer at the police station also told Takeda: “‘You fucking Exponent people are idiots. One of your reporters is an idiot who has already given us trouble. You’re lucky you didn’t get double-tapped in the chest. I hope you get charged then thrown out of school. And you know what you’ll be doing next year? Working at McDonald’s.’”

Meanwhile, Osterreicher noted in his letter that officials’ apparent focus on whether Takeda photographed blood was “especially egregious.”

“I would remind you that law enforcement’s job is one of enforcing laws, ensuring public safety and collecting evidence,” Osterreicher wrote in his letter. “It is not one of making editorial judgments or exercising an onerous form of prior restraint by preventing photographs from being taken.”

The Exponent officials also cite a history of strained relations between the newspaper and the campus police department in their complaint. A complaint filed by a photographer who was confronted by police at a voting station in 2010 went unanswered, they wrote, and the meetings that were promised by Purdue Police Chief John Cox after that incident didn’t pan out as promised. The meetings were supposed to be quarterly, but Kuhnle said only one meeting occurred.

Kuhnle said the Exponent management planned “almost immediately” to file a complaint but initially prioritized their focus on covering the shooting. It’s not just about this incident, Kuhnle said, but also about correcting a pattern of strained relations between the police and Exponent staff.

“Our intent is to make them aware of our concerns, make them aware of federal law and assist them in training officers and working with future Exponent staffers,” Kuhnle said.

Takeda said he was at first reluctant to file his own complaint, but he decided to do so after noticing the damage to his camera and after realizing it was important to stick up for respectful treatment of journalists.

“I demand this type of behavior toward Exponent student journalists to stop,” Takeda wrote in his letter. “I don’t want the photographers who work for me, Exponent reporters or myself to have to worry about being abused by Purdue police when we’re on assignment.”

On Thursday, Purdue counsel Steven Schultz replied in separate letters to Osterreicher and the newspaper promising “a thorough investigation” to be completed in about two weeks. A report detailing the investigation’s findings and “whether the conduct cited in the complaint involves violations of PUPD policy or standards of conduct” will be released at the end of the investigation, Schultz wrote. 

By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.

Updated Jan. 30 to add new information about Purdue’s response to the letters.