Declaring San Bruno Fire 'Crime Scene' Kept Media Out

San Bruno Fire Smi23le.jpg
A 'disaster' scene and 'crime' scene are not the same...
It would be hard to begrudge San Bruno police for moving to keep non-emergency personnel out of the neighborhood impacted by last week's blast and fire. On Friday, police declared the incinerated areas a "crime scene," which severely restricted access.

Again, a hard move to bemoan. And yet, by using the designation "crime" and not "disaster," media access to the neighborhood has been largely curtailed.

Police could have kept gawkers, looters, and others out of the area without using the "crime scene" designation. According to section 409.5 of the penal code, "Whenever a menace to the public health or safety is created by a calamity such as flood, storm, fire, earthquake, explosion, accident, or other disaster" then police, highway patrol, or other authorities are entitled to "close the area where the menace exists for the duration thereof by means of ropes, markers, or guards to any and all persons not authorized by the lifeguard or officer to enter or remain within the enclosed area."

Of course, there is a caveat: "Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed pursuant to this section. "

Crime scenes, however, are different -- by treating the entire 10-acre fire zone as the equivalent of a murder room, access was severely restricted. Calls to the San Bruno Police Department querying why it opted to declare the fire are a "crime scene" and not enact the aforementioned penal code have not been returned.

Fifteen minutes after the San Bruno blast, black smoke could be seen from McLaren Park

The Chronicle's Michael Cabanatuan said he was ordered out of the neighborhood on Thursday night -- before San Bruno Police declared it a crime scene. "We told them that we have access to disaster areas. I did that both individually and with other reporters. But they said 'no, we won't let you in,'" he said. "In a situation like this, when it's chaos, you understand. But I think a lot of officers don't understand that the press has rights. I think I got a raw deal to some extent."

Whatever access Cabanatuan and others could have gotten was pretty much cut off by Friday's "crime scene" declaration. "At that point, I think it was ridiculous," says the reporter. By then, "there really wasn't the idea of people getting underfoot. I think it's a control thing. Perhaps they did consider it a crime scene, but they could have restricted particular areas, which is what police usually do. From the overhead pictures, you can see that there are several areas roped off with yellow tape.  

"With multimedia and all the information that gets out there that is inaccurate or based on rumors, you want to get in there and get the story right."

The "crime scene" declaration also puzzled Anthony Hare, now a forensic clinician with the San Francisco Forensic Institute and U.C. Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management -- but, previously, a longtime incident commander with the Oakland Police Department. In that position, he oversaw many disaster scenes and hostage situations -- and he told SF Weekly that restricting press access in a San Bruno-like situation went against the procedures he was schooled in.

Regarding disaster scenes, he said that press access was "negotiable every time. And if you think they shouldn't go in because they'll be underfoot, you keep them out in a heartbeat."

But the "crime scene" designation -- which essentially treats journalists and looters equivalently -- struck him as odd.

"The very law that gives them the right to declare a critical incident and exclude the public says the press is exempt from this exclusion," he says. "That drives a lot of police, fire, and disaster managers crazy. But that's how you keep us honest." 

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