INDIANA — Police detained a Purdue Exponent photo editor for questioning and confiscated his equipment after the student attempted to photograph in an area near the scene of a campus shooting at Purdue University on Tuesday.
At about noon Tuesday, a Purdue student shot and killed another student in the Electrical Engineering building and soon after “surrendered to police just outside the east side” of the building, according to the university. The suspect was “in custody within minutes,” but a shelter-in-place order stayed in effect until about 1:15 p.m.
A few minutes after reports of the shooting surfaced, the Exponent’s photo editor Michael Takeda headed to the area — just across the street from the newspaper’s offices — to photograph the scene. Seeking some additional photos from the inside, and not seeing any indication that the building was off-limits, Takeda said he walked into the nearby Materials Science and Electrical Engineering Building. From there, he walked onto a skywalk pathway connecting to the Electrical Engineering Building to take several photos and then turned around to retrace his steps back outside.
At that point, Takeda said several police officers confronted him, pointing a stun-gun at him. They then forced him to the ground and confiscated the two cameras he had. He was not able to determine which department the officers were from.
Police escorted him outside the building to a West Lafayette Police Department vehicle and, there, took his cellphone after he began texting to let others know he was OK, he said. Takeda stayed in the car for about an hour before being taken to the campus police station for questioning, he said.
While at the station, Takeda said he asked an officer escorting him to the interrogation room whether he could expect charges. He said the officer responded by saying that he hoped Takeda would be charged and kicked out of school, adding that Takeda would probably be “working at McDonald’s” in a year.
Purdue police captain of special services Eric H. Chin said he was unaware of this exchange, but Takeda is welcome to file a formal complaint with the department.
During questioning, Takeda said police asked general questions about why he was in the area, and it seemed that “they were mainly worried that I didn’t take any pictures of blood,” he said.
Takeda was released from the police station at about 2:30 p.m. and returned to the Exponent newsroom — with his phone but without his cameras. Exponent publisher Pat Kuhnle then contacted the Student Press Law Center for assistance getting Takeda’s equipment back.
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte reached out to an official in the Purdue president’s office, who he said responded quickly and relayed a message to the campus police chief. Takeda also went back to the scene to ask for his cameras back. The first officer he approached didn’t immediately help to return the equipment, but after a second attempt in which Takeda brought up the Privacy Protection Act, his equipment was returned. There was no indication that photos had been deleted or otherwise tampered with and he was still able to publish the photos as part of the paper’s coverage of the shooting, Takeda said.
“I’m disappointed that police still have to be reminded in the year 2014 that they don’t get to take away journalists’ cameras or phones,” LoMonte said, “but the university responded quickly and set things right, and they deserve some credit for not turning this into a prolonged legal battle.”
Confiscation of a journalist’s equipment or “unpublished work product” constitutes a possible violation of the Privacy Protection Act, a federal anti-search law that stems from a situation involving a local police raid involving a college newsroom, LoMonte explained. There’s an exception in cases involving “some imminent life-or-death emergency,” LoMonte said, but in this case the shooter was already in custody at the time the photo editor was detained.
Chin was the officer who ultimately returned the cameras to Takeda, at about 3:30 p.m. The department’s priorities at this point lie mainly with the investigation of the shooting itself, but Chin said finding out more about the incident involving Takeda’s camera is also an “interest of ours.” He wasn’t able to comment on specifics of Takeda’s interactions with police or the confrontation in the building, but he stressed that the officers were operating under extreme circumstances near “a location where gunshots were discharged” and “an act of violence occurred.” Chin said he was told the confrontation took place in a “closed sealed area,” despite Takeda’s observations that the area appeared to be open.
“We do not know where threats are, do not know who threats are” in such situations, Chin said. “In response to the interaction with media, our mission yesterday was for preservation of life safety.”
In retrospect, Takeda said he might have exercised more caution before entering the area between the two buildings — even though it did not appear to be off-limits at the time. Still, he said, he was frustrated by the manner in which the police handled the confrontation.
“I respect the severity of the incident and how they were taking things seriously,” Takeda said. “It’d be nice if my rights were backed up by the local police.”
Kuhnle, too, was frustrated by the initial response — police could have paused to recognize that Takeda was a journalist, he said, and asked him to leave the area instead of forcing him to the ground.
Kuhnle also noted that this isn’t the first time the Exponent has run into a conflict with local police, pointing to a 2010 incident in which a student journalist was mistakenly instructed by a campus police officer not to video paramedics working near a polling place on campus. As a result, the Exponent began attending quarterly meetings with the police, and the department also introduced media training to its annual police education.
Purdue officials did not respond to a request for additional comment as of publication time.
By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.