The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman has filed a complaint with the state Department of Public Safety after a veteran Alaska State Trooper pulled over a reporter last week and seized his camera memory card, saying news-gathering images of an arrest constituted “evidence.”
The Wasilla newspaper’s complaint says trooper Sgt. Mike Ingram’s actions violated constitutional protections of freedom of the press and against unlawful search and seizure.
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees troopers, says it is investigating.
The incident happened when Frontiersman reporter Brian O’Connor went to cover a reported shooting near the Parks Highway in Willow Wednesday morning, the newspaper wrote in a front page article published Sunday.
O’Connor took photos of a man being arrested from a public roadway about 100 yards away and then left in his personal vehicle, according to Frontiersman Managing Editor Matt Tunseth. O’Connor had twice identified himself as a journalist at the scene, the newspaper said.
The reporter had driven a couple of miles from the scene when Ingram pulled him over.
The trooper “demanded that O’Connor turn over either his camera or the digital memory card containing pictures of the arrest, saying it was potential evidence,” according to the newspaper’s published account of events.
O’Connor offered to share the images with authorities, but “Ingram said he had to take the card into his possession” and the reporter complied, the article said.
There was never any explicit threat of arrest and the exchange was cordial, Tunseth said.
Still, the reporter was ordered to give up his camera or memory card by a uniformed law enforcement officer.
“Brian’s understanding was that he had to do this,” Tunseth said.
After hearing about what happened, Tunseth and publisher Mark Kelsey contacted troopers to ask about the incident. Within a few hours, the memory card was returned.
None of the photos had been deleted, according to Tunseth, a former Alaska Dispatch News sports reporter who recently took the helm at the Mat-Su paper.
On Friday, after the paper filed its formal complaint, the newspaper was told an internal investigation was underway.
The newspaper is not asking for the trooper to be disciplined.
The editor and publisher spoke directly to the director of the Department of Public Safety, Col. James Cockrell.
“I have every assurance from Col. Cockrell that they are taking this seriously,” Tunseth said.
Cockrell declined to answer questions about the incident Sunday.
The department released a statement through spokeswoman Beth Ipsen saying it would have no comment until an investigation through the Office of Professional Standards had been completed.
“We will not be commenting further until we have had a chance to review the information to determine what happened and if any department policies were violated or if the actions of the troopers involved were warranted under the circumstances,” the statement said.
On Sunday, the newspaper ran a news article and editorial about the incident that praised the department as a “highly professional and distinguished group” but said it “acted contrary to the public’s trust” and needed to be held accountable.
“We’ve always had good relations with (troopers),” Tunseth said. “We just think this could have been handled a little differently.”