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2006/10/02

After the facts

The police scanner said that there was a structure fire on the eastern section of town. Then the dispatcher paged out the fire units from the station across the street from the newspaper. I was pulling out of the parking lot as I saw the fire station doors open, and after allowing them to pass at the intersection I followed. The fire turned out to be minor - some new insulation in one of the homes walls was ignited, presumably from being in contact with the pipes from the hot water heater. Not much of a photo from the front of the house, just a few firefighters standing around a ladder while two guys got on the roof to check for smoke. So I went back to the outer perimeter and hung out with the ladder crew that had been on standby. Soon they were released from the scene and started packing up the hoses. When I saw the guys starting to straighten the lines before pulling them back onto the truck I got down on my knees and waited for one of them to move in front of me. I got off two frames. The first frame his back foot is still on the ground and doesn't have the same sense of motion and tension this frame does.

When I first got to the scene there was a police car blocking the road about a block and a half from the scene. Being a dead-end street there was no other access, so I simply parked on the street, grabbed my gear and started walking. He realized who I was, promptly jumped from his car, ran to the trunk and pulled out a roll of police tape. By this time I was already passed him, and he hollered out, "I think they have it out already" to discourage me from moving on to the scene. Instead I stopped at the rear truck and checked in with Ray Ross from the fire marshall's office. With his permission I advanced right up to the house (across the street to stay out of anybody's way). There really was not much to photograph, as I said, but the constant police interference with our news gathering is a real problem. The current chief, Sylvester Stanley, has decided that ANY fire is suspicious and is therefore a crime scene, and all access to the area is restricted. Officers with the department for years that used to speak to us freely now move away because the only thing they can say is to contact the PIO -- who incidentally only works from 9-5 and has NEVER returned a phone call to me about an incident.

There is a rumor in our office that many of the New Mexico newspapers are filing a class action lawsuit against the police throughout the state, for their interference and prevention of us exercising our constitutional rights to a free press. Right now it is a rumor, but I can hope that it makes people re-examine the police/media relations. In Gallup they have steadily deteriorated in the ten years I have worked for this newspaper.
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