U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Undercover police threaten to arrest journalist after he films the search of a black man

Incident Details

Courtesy Mike Elk

Inside this Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Amtrak station journalist Mike Elk filmed undercover state police interaction with a black man, seen in the left corner.

— Courtesy Mike Elk
February 26, 2019

An undercover Pennsylvania State Police officer threatened to arrest a journalist when he noticed that the reporter was recording three officers’ search of a black man at an Amtrak station in Pittsburgh on Feb. 26, 2019.

Mike Elk, a reporter and founder of Payday Report, was returning to his hometown after a trip and had disembarked at the Pittsburgh station. In an account of the incident, Elk wrote for the labor publication that he was heading toward the exit when he noticed three undercover state police officers corner and begin searching a black man. He said he followed his journalistic instinct and began to record the interaction.

After the officers finished searching the man’s bags and released him, Elk told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that an officer saw that he was recording and approached him, demanding to see his identification while the two other undercover officers “hovered” nearby. Elk identified himself as a journalist and told the officer that he felt within his rights to record them in a public space.

“The undercover cop told me that I was illegally wiretapping him,” Elk wrote in his account. The officer noted that Elk’s breath smelled of alcohol—Elk wrote that he had three Bud Lites on the train—and that he could be arrested for public intoxication as soon as he stopped outside the station.

When the officer repeated his demand that Elk show him identification, Elk handed the officer his passport, which Elk said was in his back pocket as he had just returned from Portugal. Elk wrote that the officer mocked him as “fancy” for having a passport, demanded to see his driver’s license and repeated his threat to arrest Elk once he left the train station.

“I showed [my driver’s license] to him and he said we are gonna check to see if they [sic] are any warrants out for your arrest,” Elk recounted.

Elk volunteered to erase the video he had taken of the officers’ interaction with the black man. “I informed the officer that I would erase the recording. Three cops crowded around me and watched as I deleted it,” Elk wrote. However, he continued, “the threats continued even after I erased the recording.

Elk wrote that after a few minutes he and the officer threatening arrest came to an agreement to walk away. A different officer approached him then and told Elk, “Why do you fuck with us? Don’t fuck with us and we won’t fuck with you.”

Elk said he was able to leave the station approximately five minutes after he had disembarked from the train. Elk wrote that he has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and plans to take legal action in order to assert the rights of journalists, and the public generally, to record incidents involving the police in public spaces.

“This is my hometown and I am not gonna be intimidated for standing up for racial justice,” Elk wrote.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].