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When Police Pose as the Press

March 16, 1986

A woman in Anaheim was recently arrested by a cameraman for KNBC-TV on suspicion of prostitution. At least that's who his identification said he was before he finally flashed his police badge and made the arrest. The woman was upset. So was KNBC-TV. And with good cause.

That a police detective would use counterfeit credentials seized years ago in a forgery case to pass himself off as a member of the press to persuade a prostitution suspect that he was something other than a police officer is of great concern to the news agency he falsely represented. But it also concerns the press in general--and the public. All were victims of the subterfuge.

Another aspect of the incident is even more disturbing. The police, despite the television station's protest, did not see anything wrong with using the phony press identification. They could not be more wrong.

Journalists do not go around passing themselves off as police officers. Police should not pose as reporters.

What Anaheim police officials fail to realize is that the practice is not harmless. In response to KNBC's outrage, one police supervisor responded by saying that using the false identification was offensive only to the prostitute. It goes well beyond that. Using false identification from an existing company is bad policy. But using phony press identification is even worse because it compromises all news organizations and can put their representatives under suspicion.

Reporters must rely on the confidence and trust of the people they interview to gather and report the news. That trust is weakened, and every news organization's credibility is undermined, if people get an impression that the press is working for the police, or at least that they cannot tell whether they are talking to reporters or police officers.

Facing that, many people will stop talking. And that, in the long run, hurts the press, police and other institutions in a democracy that depends on an informed public and watchdog press to keep the system functioning effectively.

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