MONTVILLE — Charges were dropped last week against the Chesterfield Fire Company’s public information officer, likely the first person to have been charged under a decade-old state law prohibiting first responders from sharing photos without a victim’s permission.
After a two-car crash closed Route 85 in Montville the morning of Feb. 7, 2021, the fire company’s Public Information Officer Steven Frischling posted an alert to the Chesterfield Fire Co. Facebook page, including photos of first responders working at the crash.
That March, Frischling was arrested and charged with two counts of violating a law that prohibits first responders from taking and distributing photos of victims at a scene without their permission, unless it’s a part of their duties — charges that carry a possible punishment of up to a $2,000 fine or a year in prison.
Frischling’s attorney Mario Cerame said that on Friday, more than two years after the arrest, state Superior Court Judge Arthur C. Hadden dismissed the charges before the case went to trial. With the charges dismissed, but no ruling made on whether he violated the law, Frischling told CT Examiner on Wednesday he hoped the dismissal would set a precedent that taking photos at a crash scene is a public information officer’s job.
Frischling posted four photos from the February 2021 crash to the Facebook page, one of which appears to show someone covered with a blanket on a gurney, and another showing a person sitting in the driver’s seat of a car while firefighters cut off the damaged driver’s side door.
Court records identify the person sitting in the driver’s seat as a crash victim. Speaking to CT Examiner on Wednesday, Frischling claimed that the person, whose head is blurred in the photo on Facebook, is a deputy chief, not a victim of the crash.
Cerame said he and Frischling were ready to make their case in a trial, but the case was dismissed after Assistant State’s Attorney Sarah Bowman entered a “nolle” — a formal notice that the state was not going to continue to prosecute.
Bowman told CT Examiner that the state entered the “nolle” after the judge highlighted weaknesses in their case that would make it difficult to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Bowman declined to say what those weaknesses were.
The law Frischling allegedly broke was passed in 2011 after a New London police officer took photos on his personal cellphone of a man who had died from an overdose, and sent the photos to other people. State lawmakers responded by passing a law that bars first responders from taking a photo of someone at a scene without their permission.
According to a report from The Day newspaper of New London, at least one lawmaker was concerned the law could disrupt first responders’ efforts to reconstruct accident scenes, so the law is written to apply only to photos taken “other than in the performance of (a responder’s) duties.”
Frischling told CT Examiner taking photos at crash scenes is something he does regularly as public information officer for the Chesterfield Fire Company. He said it informs people when major roads are closed and will be closed for an extended period of time, and it highlights the efforts of the town’s firefighters.
According to Frischling, the department spells out that the public information officer “photographs and visually documents incident scenes for release to the public,” he said.
“It used to be, years ago, you would have newspapers with multiple photographers and reporters, and TV crews were far more abundant so the news could be covered,” Frischling said. “Now, especially when it comes to local markets, we have to drive our own information, because there is a lot of misinformation that comes out of incidents. So it’s up to the department to put that information out in a timely and accurate manner.”
John Barbagallo, public information officer for the Norfolk Volunteer Fire Department, said that as a trained fire department member, he documents what his fellow firefighters are doing.
“A lot of folks have moved in from the city and still think they have a fire department with career guys sitting at the firehouse waiting for tones to go off, and that is not the case,” Babagallo said of the fully-volunteer Norfolk department. “So we certainly use it as an educational component to inform the public.”
Mark Brady, a retired longtime public information officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, who has instructed public information officers across the country including in Connecticut, said taking photos at a crash scene has become a regular part of the job over the last 15 years. He said it helps to show the public the resources of the department and the challenges they face in their day-to-day work.
But not all photos of a crash scene are acceptable, Brady acknowledged. Earlier this month, the family of NBA star Kobe Bryant settled a lawsuit against Los Angeles County after deputies and firefighters shared graphic photos of the victims of a 2020 helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people.
Brady said a public information officer taking and sharing graphic photos of people who are seriously injured or killed would not be ethical, saying there’s a general rule that they shouldn’t post anything they wouldn’t show their own family.
There are also legal standards to consider, especially patient privacy laws that require public information officers to remove personally identifying information from photos, including blurring out license plate numbers, he said.
“If you’re a PIO and taking pictures showing your agency at work, while considering the laws of patient privacy, and showing pictures that are not graphic, those are acceptable,” Brady said. “There’s a line to be drawn between what is a graphic picture, and one that’s not.”
Barbagallo said he has his own standards for when to post a photo: would he want the photo to be out in the public if it was his own family in the photo? He said that standard is much more strict than the state law, and if he follows it, he won’t have to worry about getting near the line of what state law allows.
“I don’t want to upset my neighbors, my friends, my family, because it might have been them that were involved,” he said. “And I extend that to people I know, whose houses I know and whose cars I know, and to perfect strangers.”
Cerame said that, as far as he knows, Frischling is the only person who has been charged under the state law since it was passed in 2011. He said he couldn’t find another case of anyone being prosecuted for taking photos at a crash scene, and believes the law was being twisted from its intent in order to prosecute Frischling.
“It’s one thing to take some pictures on your cellphone to pass around. It’s another thing for a public information officer to post something, in accordance with regulations, as part of your duty to inform the community about what you’re doing,” he said.
Barbagallo said he doesn’t think the law will impede the work of public information officers. Frischling is likely the only person charged so far under the Connecticut law, but Barbagallo said that firefighters and EMTs have been charged in other states for “blatant disrespect and blatant stupidity,” like taking a sensational photo and putting it up on their own Facebook page.
“That’s what the law was intended for. It was not intended to impede the official job of the PIO,” Barbagallo said. “That’s why this case is so interesting.”