SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — SUNNYSIDE — Calling the whole thing a mistake, police on Tuesday asked for dismissal of a charge against a man arrested after he filmed a SWAT raid.
At the request of both police officials and prosecutors, Sunnyside Municipal Court Judge Steven Michels dismissed the charge against Thomas Warren, a bystander arrested earlier this month after filming the Sunnyside SWAT team search for a stolen laptop at a house they suspect has a history of gang activity and weapons.
“We made the mistake, we own it,” said Phil Schenck, Sunnyside deputy police chief.
Warren said he expected the dismissal, but still may sue the police department.
“It’s still on the table,” said the 28-year-old Sunnyside librarian with a penchant for filming police activity.
Schenck said he was uncomfortable with the “muddied” quality of the evidence against Warren, who was charged with obstruction for allegedly crossing a police line. However, Warren’s videotape showed Sunnyside Sgt. Oli Hernandez threatening to arrest him if he doesn’t stop filming the SWAT team’s activities the evening of Aug. 10.
The SWAT team’s perimeter that night was poorly defined, Schenck said. Officers had blocked the street with police cars. But no warning tape was set up due to time constraints, he said. Also, other bystanders were allowed beyond that point where Warrent was arrested.
Schenck said he has scheduled a refresher training in constitutional law and search and seizure for his whole department with a Yakima County prosecutor.
He declined to discuss what, if any, disciplinary measures Hernandez, a nine-year veteran of the department, might face.
Filming or taking pictures, even of police, in a public area is legal with few exceptions in Washington.
While police may instruct someone to move if they reasonably believe the person or their filming equipment is in the way, they can’t stop someone from filming.
Warren moved to Sunnyside seven years ago from the Seattle area and often videotapes the doings of officers, both as a hobby and as a way to protect civil rights in a city where police admittedly take aggressive enforcement against gang activity, he said.
“I enjoy freedom of the press,” Warren said.
He has filmed 12 police actions and has posted a few of them to his YouTube page. In one of them, he politely declines to identify himself to an officer who stopped to talk to him while walking to a nearby store out of “principle.” The officer then politely sent him on his way.
Warren actually began filming the Aug. 10 raid with two cameras after hearing a flashbang, a loud and bright nonexplosive police tool, down the street from his apartment, he said.
He turned one of them off and clipped it to his pocket where it was still visible, he said, while continuing to film and take photos with his cellphone. That’s when Hernandez approached him and told him to stop, claiming it’s illegal to film people without their permission.
In the video, posted on YouTube, Warren and Hernandez have a brief exchange regarding the recording. Hernandez instructed Warren and a woman standing near him to “get out of the way, so the officers can do their job.” But he never mentioned a perimeter in the clip. At one point he tells Warren: “Please don’t record me. I’ll arrest you. Do you understand that?”
Warren was arrested and handcuffed a short time later, but police never took his camera. Hernandez later issued him a citation for obstruction, saying he crossed a secured perimeter.
Warren said he had been standing behind the police at the time and out of their way. He said Hernandez never clearly stated he had crossed a police line.
He appreciated Schenck’s reaction, which included an apology, but he’s still considering a lawsuit for what he called a false report for stating he had crossed the perimeter.