D.C. Police Chief Maurice J. Culliane yesterday proposed a unique "mutual agreement" between police and the news media for operational procedures during terrorist and hostage incidents in the city.
Proposed procedures ranged from permitting reporters and photographers selected from a pool to attend portions of police-terrorist negotiations to having the news media agree not to initiate telephone calls to hostage takers.
The 12-point proposal - which Cullinane said was designed to balance the sometimes conflicting interests of law enforcement and the press - met initial resistance and skepticism from most representatives of the press.
But a police department spokesman said Cullinane's office was deluged with calls from city residents praising the proposal after they heard radio reports about it yesterday afternoon.
The role of the press and its relationship with the police in hostage and terrorist situations has become an increasingly contentious issue here in recent years. Police officials complain that reporters and television camera crews have complicated their jobs and increased physical dangers for the police by telephoning terrorists and broadcasting "live" TV film showing the positions of police sniper teams and other officers around barricaded buildings.
Newspaper and television reporters contend police sometimes arbitrarily and unfairly limit their access to hostage or terrorist scenes.
Two major incidents that fueled the dispute recently were the takeovers of the B'nai B'rith headquarters, the District Building and a mosque here last March by Hanafi Muslim gunmen, and the takeover of the Alonso Boutique in Georgetown a year ago by three men during an apparently bungled robbery attempt.
Cullinane's proposals, which he called "ra" and "flexible," include:
Agreement by the police to establish a "broadcast area" and a separate "news media command center" near the scene of an incident by "apart from a regular police line." Interviews of officials updating the situation would be conducted in the "broadcast area." More detailed and off-the-record briefings would be provided in the "news media command center."
Briefings to the media by the "actual police negotiator" on the situation, "if circumstances allow" Similarly, the police negotiator may briefly allow a "pool camera crew, newspaper reporter and photographer and a radio reporter without sound-recording capability . . . into the actual command center where the negotiations are being conducted if such a command center is established."
Agreement by the news media not to telephone a hostage taker. If reporters receive a call from a hostage taker, "they will immediately notify the police department for guidance as to how the call should be handled. No such conversation between the gunman and a correspondent will be broadcast or published without first conferring with the police negotiator for advice."
Limited use of live telecasting with "no close-ups of the actual windows where police officers may be stationed for observation purposes. No movement of police officers should be reported 'live.'"
Media representatives objected to many of the proposed restrictions on the press and any suggestion that press activity be "cleared" by the police.
The proposals contain "serious conflicts with freedom of the press as granted by the First Amendment," said James Snyder, news director for WTOP-TV.He added that as a Federal Communications Commission licensce, "We are prohibited from abdicating our responsibility to operate this station, including news coverage, to any outside party."
Leonard Downie Jr., assistant managing editor for metropolitan news at The Washington Post said:
"We simply cannot enter into any agreement that amounts to prior restraint of the press. That would conflict with both our freedom and our responsibility under the First Amendment."
He said, "We do have certain internal standards . . . The most important is that we try to do nothing that would endanger any lives. As a result, we have frequently withheld information . . . such as police plans and the names of hostages until the incident was over . . . We have sometimes consulted with the authorities, but we always want to reserve the right to make the final decision ourselves and not have our hands tied by the police."
Cullinane's proposal, if implemented, would be unique among major American cities, police say. Several news organizations, including United Press International, Columbia Broadcasting System, the Field newspapers in Chicago and the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal have internal guidelines for their reporters in terrorist situations. Most stress avoiding direct involvement or providing an "excessive platform" for the demands of hostage takers and terrorists.
The C & P Telephone Co., at the request of police, has asked the D.C. Public Service Commission to grant police exclusive access to telephone lines into buildings where terrorists are holding a hostage. The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the idea as an everly broad use of police powers. The PSC is expected to rule on the request early next year.
Cullinane yesterday urged a meeting of police and press representatives to work out details and ?improve on (his) recommendations."