A spokesman for UND apologized to the Herald after reviewing footage of a UND police officer ejecting its reporters from a public university property.
Peter Johnson, UND’s top public affairs official, delivered an apology in person to two Herald reporters at the newspaper’s downtown offices on Tuesday. Journalists Andrew Haffner and Andrew Hazzard were covering an Aug. 9 visit by Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center when a UND officer asked them to cross the street and leave the property.
“After looking at the body-cam footage, it’s clear to me, as I suspected, that the reporters should not have been asked to leave the university property,” Johnson said on Thursday. “I thought it was unfortunate that it went that way, and I apologized on behalf of the university for that.”
UND President Mark Kennedy is aware of the ejection, Johnson said, and shares the same opinion of the events.
“I think that particular situation was not the way that UND Police Chief Eric Plummer nor I would have handled that,” Johnson said. “I think we had a police officer who meant well, who was trying to do his job the way he perhaps understood it, but ultimately what happened should not have happened.”
The incident was captured by a body camera worn by UND Police Officer Joe Citta. The video shows Citta speaking with reporters outside the front entrance of the EERC building. He refuses to give his first name when asked.
“You’re on private property right now,” he tells reporters. He concedes, when asked, that all three are standing on UND property.
“OK,” a Herald reporter responds. “Which is owned by the state.”
“This is private property,” Citta says.
“But it’s owned by the University of North Dakota.”
Footage shows a pause, during which Citta apparently speaks into his radio before resuming the conversation.
“Cross the street, OK? This is private property -- ”
“This is UND property, or private property?”
“Stop arguing with me and cross the street now. OK? Go.”
Johnson said the property is state-owned and public, but that sections of the EERC are not publicly accessible where proprietary or potentially dangerous research is conducted. UND Police Chief Eric Plummer said that, per conversations with federal security officials, the building was considered entirely restricted on that day -- including the building’s lobby, which is normally publicly accessible.
Plummer said reporters should not have been told the building was “private property,” but rather “restricted access,” and they should have been allowed to remain near the doorway to the building.
Asked if Citta was disciplined following the incident, Plummer said he was “counseled” and added that he does not comment on disciplinary matters. Plummer said he discussed the event at a Monday training meeting of UND police officers.
The body camera footage begins as a Herald reporter concludes a conversation with a person off-camera. Plummer said the camera footage begins at this point because Citta is about to engage in an “enforcement action,” for which UND Police policy requires the cameras are turned on.
“Which would be consistent with policy,” Plummer said.
An official with the EERC did not return a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.
Korrie Wenzel, publisher of the Herald, said he appreciates the apology.
“But the fact still remains that our reporters were kept from doing their job, and that's bothersome,” he said. “A little more training or planning in advance could have been very helpful. It sounds to me that the officer assumed he knew the procedure when he really didn't. That's dangerous. He should have known the procedure before he reacted.”