Wentz-Graff, a petite, 4-foot 11-inch, 100-pound, 41-year-old woman, paid scant attention to the sudden line of police rushing past her. She was a veteran of other raucous protests in Wisconsin and thought she knew how to shoot photos without becoming part of the story.
“I stayed far back,” said Wentz-Graff, a three-time winner of the state’s Photographer of the Year Award. “I never want to get in the way of an officer doing his job. But the next thing I knew, my hands were in handcuffs behind my back.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m a journalist, I am a journalist.’ I didn’t understand why he was grabbing me. He wasn’t saying anything to me.”
She begged the officer to be careful with her camera, worried that he might break it. She was a journalist on assignment. Not a political activist.
“I was frustrated,” she recently told me in an hour-long telephone interview. “I didn’t know what happened. I still don’t know. It definitely makes me wonder what happens in an arrest situation when the media is not there.”
Other reporters at the scene yelled at the officer that Wentz-Graff was one of them, and so did the marchers. But it didn’t do any good. Since the Occupy protests began last year, journalists in New York, Boston, Nashville, Atlanta, Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles have been arrested.
Milwaukee police sergeant Mark D. Wagner Jr., who arrested Wentz-Graff, still insists five months after the Nov. 2 incident that he thought she was one of the camera-toting protesters. Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn has said he supports his officer.
Police stuck to their story even after Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said that videos taken of Wentz-Graff’s arrest showed her with press credentials, doing what American photojournalists are charged by the constitution to do: document scenes the public needs to see.
“It was clear to me that she was a photojournalist,” the mayor told reporters. “I support her First Amendment right to be there.”
Wentz-Graff was put in the backseat of a police car, her camera still strapped to her shoulder, with one of the university students who had been arrested. Her new captor didn’t take her camera away from her. He let it hang around her neck, next to her newspaper photo ID.
She kept telling the squad car driver that that she worked for the Journal Sentinel, but he didn’t listen. He was just doing his job. He barely smiled when they rode past the Journal Sentinel building and Wentz-Graff asked him if they could stop so she could tell her editor what had happened to her.
But Wentz-Graff, a former gymnast, was able to tell him anyway. With her hands cuffed behind her back, she still managed to send a text to her editor: “Three arrested, including me. Call Jennifer (Peterson, the Journal Sentinel’s attorney).”
It would be embarrassing to be scooped while she was in custody. The officer tried to calm his passengers by explaining that their arrests wouldn’t amount to anything more than a parking ticket. If that were the case, why was she still in handcuffs, Wentz-Graff asked. Why were they being kept in the back of a squad car?
Because they had to be put into the system, the officer explained. Wentz-Graff has been a photojournalist for 12 years, and nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Not at the Post Crescent in Appleton, Wis., or the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, or when she freelanced at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., or in her six years at the Journal Sentinel. “I am so straight,” she remembered thinking, “I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket.”
But that was before the Occupy demonstrations began spreading across the country last year. Before cellphone photos and video cameras became the weapons of choice for protesters. Those images, especially in New York City, where the Occupy Wall Street protests were born, caught police angrily putting down demonstrators.
Wentz-Graff knew what being in the system meant. She was being treated like a criminal. It was hardly like getting a parking ticket. She was taken into the station, where her captors searched for a matron to pat her down for weapons.
The matron did a thorough job, while another officer held her most potent weapon: her camera. But he didn’t tinker with it, and a picture she took at the rally was published in the Journal Sentinel. The newspaper ran a photo of Wentz-Graff's arrest the next day -- taken by Lita Medinger, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee -- when questions arose about whether the officer could see her press credentials.
Suddenly Wentz-Graff realized she could spend time in jail. She was fingerprinted. They took a mug shot. Later, one of the paper’s police sources sent her a copy of her mug. “I looked like a deer in the headlights,” she told me.
She wasn’t surprised by the gesture. “I always had good encounters with the police before,” she said, even though her paper had a prickly history with them. And just two months before, Milwaukee police had arrested television reporter Clint Fillinger of WTTI-TV while he was shooting photos of a fire.
After she was processed, Wentz-Graff was taken to a general holding pen, where she used the open toilet, shielded by another detainee from the eyes of the police outside. Soon afterward, two hours after her ordeal began, she was released and given a summons to report six weeks later to the city attorney’s office to resolve the complaint against her. However, there was nothing on that summons indicating what charges were filed against her.
But by the time she was scheduled to appear before the city attorney, local media and many national news organizations had taken up her cause. The police backed down and the charges, whatever they might be, were withdrawn. Since that experience, she has had time to think of what it all means.
“I realized that when I was thrown in jail, I was not able to do the reporting, to still be the eyes of the people. That’s what we are supposed to be,” Wentz-Graff said. “We have a serious obligation. People trust the police to use good judgment and do their job.
“I was doing my job when they arrested me. I wasn’t trying to show that the police were doing anything wrong. Or that the protesters were. My basic job was to honestly and accurately depict what was going on out there.”
She also shares a concern that many street protesters wonder about: whether she will always have an arrest record. Even though she never was formally charged with anything.
With that in mind, the Journal Sentinel ’s legal department periodically called the city attorney’s office in early March to see whether Wentz-Graff’s arrest was still logged in the computer system. So far there has been no answer.
Wentz-Graff appreciates the support she received from Marty Kaiser, the Journal Sentinel editor, who stood up for her the way editors are supposed to. The newsroom gave her a standing ovation when she came back to the office.
The reception she receives outside the newsroom is mixed.
“Every single day I get some person who recognizes me. One asked me if I was the one who was arrested. Another person said I should have been. Some people wondered how I could text my office with my hands in handcuffs behind my back, not knowing I was a gymnast,” she said. “I’m concerned that people don’t know that arresting journalists is a scary thing. I think it is a scary thing. It speaks to the fact that people don’t know what we do or why we do it.”
Her husband, Scott, a veterinarian who spends much of his time operating on sick animals, knows how important her job is. And when the paper texted him about her situation, he didn’t scold her for not picking up Owen, their then 16-month-old baby, from daycare.
“He texted me saying he was proud of me,” she said. Her parents, natives of Prosser, Wash. — a town she says is in the middle of nothing, surrounded by nothing — were too.
Two of her closest friends — a couple who are both on the Madison,Wis., police force — laughed when she told them about the incident, but she knew they were just being supportive.
Police officers, like journalists, are judged every day by the extreme behavior of their colleagues. The great majority of them, who do their jobs the right way, don’t always get the kind of headlines they should.
Allan Wolper is a journalism professor at Rutgers-Newark University. He is also the host and producer of Conversations with Allan Wolper, a broadcast/podcast on WBGO FM and WBGO.org/Wolper, a National Public Radio affiliate in the greater New York metropolitan area.