Proper Restraint in a Time of Outrage

September 1st, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Because this blog levels criticism at the Albuquerque Journal, it’s imperative that we also point out from time to time when reporters’ and editors’ handling of a story is done just right.

Such is the case with the paper’s editorial and news story about last month’s road-side handcuffing – at gunpoint – of Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis by State Police.

Editors showed laudable restraint in running the editorial commenting on that incident in the lower slot on the Editorial page, second-tier to a lead editorial calling for reconsideration of kill limits on black bears.

And the editorial itself, which appeared Friday (Aug. 26), had just the right tone. It drew attention to the serious flaws and problems with the arrest and, without sounding defensive, it defended its employee, which was also imperative in this case.

Those who have worked with Pierre-Louis (as I have) know he is a consummate professional, respected by his colleagues for his talent, an easy-going manner and his selfless passion for family and his native Haiti. The latter was demonstrated beautifully when he both photographed and reported on the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of that island nation. Months before the quake, he shared his talents with local students, who created a photo exhibit whose reception evolved into a benefit for helping Haiti.

It can be intimidating for a reporter to be the one who must write the story about an incident involving a fellow employee. After all, Pierre-Louise was handcuffed at gunpoint while returning from an assignment. But reporter Astrid Galvan handled the news story evenly, outlining the chain of events, soliciting the official State Police comment and interviewing her colleague. The story ran inside, on the C1 metro cover.

I’m sure the mood at the Journal upon hearing of Pierre-Louis’ treatment was sheer outrage, but that did not enter Galvan’s story. Nor did it enter the editorial. Yet, both pieces made it clear there was justification for such a reaction.

Both the news story and the editorial left it up to readers to make their own deductions about the treatment Pierre-Louis received, which is as it should be. And make up their minds readers did. A letter from Sophia and Nicholas Peron of Truth or Consequences, which ran Aug. 30, demonstrates:

What the State Police did to Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis was racist and completely unacceptable. Taking an inaccurate report from a man standing on the side of the road over the word of a professional man doing his job, with easily verifiable identification, was disgusting.

The off-duty cop was obviously so pumped up, he could have shot Adolphe!

Please forward our sincerest regards to Adolphe.

The writer of the headline that appeared above that letter took advantage of the opportunity to (finally) give readers an idea how Pierre-Louis’ colleagues felt about the whole thing. The letter was headlined: “We’re Just Happy That He’s All Right.”

Amen.

By the way, the editorial ran a full week after the initial news report the Journal carried Aug. 19. State Police Chief Robert Shilling’s apology to Pierre-Louis in the interim gave the editorial writer a hook on which to lead the piece. For the benefit of those who do not have access to online viewing, here is the text of the editorial, “State Police Stop Calls For Probe of Protocols”:

State Police Chief Robert Shilling deserves credit. He did the right thing in apologizing personally to Albuquerque Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis.

Pierre-Louis, who had broken no laws, had the misfortune to be driving a white, Journal-owned Ford Explorer on Interstate 40 near the spot a crime involving a similar vehicle may have been committed.

Stopping Pierre-Louis may have been justified, based on a report from a man along I-40 who flagged down Officer Joseph Schake and told him a bald man in a white Ford Expedition had pointed a gun at him and then driven off.

What happened after that raises serious questions.

The officer ordered Pierre-Louis out of the SUV at gunpoint, then handcuffed him. When Schake searched the Explorer, he found only camera equipment inside. There was no gun. Pierre-Louis is not bald. He was not armed. He cooperated with the officer, identified himself and was wearing his work ID badge. He had a valid driver’s license. And, the white Ford Explorer he was driving was registered to the Albuquerque Publishing Company.

At that point was there any justification to keep him detained in handcuffs? It would seem the only possible reason was the fact that the alleged mystery assailant and the photographer were both driving white SUVs — albeit different models.

Despite all this, Schake and two other officers who showed up kept Pierre-Louis cuffed along the highway for about a half hour. Eventually one of the officers retrieved the victim. That man confirmed Pierre-Louis was not the man he said had pointed a gun at him.

Only then did the man tell officers the suspect was a Hispanic man. Pierre-Louis is a black Haitian-American. Apparently standard procedure didn’t include getting much of a description.

While the chief has apologized, a State Police spokesman said the officers appear to have followed protocol.

The spokesman said there would be an investigation, but the agency has not yet produced the police incident report, which the Journal has requested.

If it turns out that holding law-abiding citizens in handcuffs at gunpoint on information this sketchy is SOP, then it would seem a review of procedures is in order.

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  • Roland

    Honestly, I am so sickened by the ABQ Journal that I hesitate to mix a defense of Pierre-Louis with a peripheral pat on the back for the editors. They are two totally separate issues. As you state, you know Pierre-Louis and he deserves to have his side of the story told — which seems to be the real thrust of your article. It shouldn’t be necessary to give lukewarm endorsements and pats on the back to the Journal every time it does its job with a modicum of professional competence. There are worse newspapers out there (viz., the Daily Oklahoman), but even in those cases we expect it to function in a semi-cogent fashion. It is a sad commentary when we feel the need to shout huzzah! whenever a newspaper rises slightly above the level of Tea-Party Propaganda.

  • Denise Tessier

    Roland, I appreciate your comment and understand your point. This is less a shout of huzzah than it is to help readers recognize that the paper could have gone two other ways: either to go overboard in outrage (as blogs do) or not comment at all, since it was an employee. It always seems superfluous to me to point out when the Journal (or any medium) does its job, but then I remember that so much media is straying from the ethic that it’s important to point out these things so the reader can be more savvy about recognizing even-handednesss and restraint, which is laudable in this day and age. And, as I mentioned in the post, I don’t think readers will buy into constant criticism as valid unless it is tempered with some commentary noting when journalistic standards are embraced.

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