Conn. fire company PIO arrested for photographs of crash scene
Chesterfield Fire Company Public Information Officer Steven E. Frischling said was performing his duties and stayed within the law
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport
MONTVILLE, Conn. — The public information officer for the Chesterfield Fire Company has been charged in connection with crash scene photos he took without permission and posted to his agency's Facebook page last month, according to an arrest warrant.
Steven E. Frischling, 45, of Carriage Hill Drive in Niantic, was charged with two counts of illegally taking or transmission by first responders of images of crime or accident victims, according to a warrant for his arrest.
Someone convicted of this offense faces a fine of up to $2,000, up to one year in jail or both, according to statute.
"It was genuinely surprising," Frischling told Hearst Connecticut Media on Thursday regarding his arrest.
Frischling, who is still actively serving in his PIO role with no changes to his duties or responsibilities, said he's very familiar with the law and does not believe he violated it.
The statute says that first responders are prohibited from photographing a person and disseminating the images without the consent of that person or of a member of that person's immediate family "other than in the performance of his or her duties."
"Those 10 words define my job," Frischling said. "My duties as a PIO are to inform the public on what their firefighters are doing, what their EMTs are doing. It is not to harm somebody that's been involved in an accident, which is why when you look at the photographs, you can't see a victim."
Frischling, a fire company member for three years and public information officer for more than a year, said he holds multiple certifications from state, federal and other entities in public information, social media in emergency management, external affairs and communications.
He said he takes "great care ... to make sure there are no victims in my pictures." He said he shared the photos with the description of the crash to inform people of what happened, especially since the collision shut down a major intersection for more than an hour.
Montville police began investigating a post Frischling made Feb. 7 on the fire company's Facebook page regarding a two-car crash on Route 85 at Grassy Hill Road where three people were taken to the hospital with injuries, according to the warrant.
The warrant said Frischling is accused of posting photographs of victims at an accident scene on social media without their permission. Frischling was taken into custody Tuesday and was released on a $1,000 bond. He is expected in court on April 15.
While the photos Frischling posted on Facebook appear to be similar to ones from other crash sites posted on the page, the warrant states he did not receive permission from the victims involved in the Grassy Hill Road accident.
Photos are also usually blurred to cover license plates or to protect the identities of the victims. In the Grassy Hill post, Frischling included a disclaimer: "Images may have a digital blur to obscure portions of a patient's identity and their license plate."
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said that while he couldn't speak to the specifics of the law, he had concerns that criminal charges were brought against Frischling for photos that he said "could have been taken by any member of the public."
"Regardless of his position, criminalizing that type of action is a real concern," Silverman said.
But Montville Police Lt. David Radford wrote in the warrant that Frischling "posted the victims' photos without consent."
Radford said the driver of one of the vehicles involved in the accident had to be extricated.
"The pictures of the scene included occupants of the vehicles, and in one particular picture, the victim was still in the vehicle being extricated," Radford wrote in the warrant. "A second photo also depicted a male standing next to an individual being strapped to a stretcher for transports."
On March 3, Radford met with the victim's attorney who said their client was still in a rehabilitation facility after the crash, the warrant said.
The attorney told Radford, "the victim would not want his information posted on social media" and "the victim did not give anyone permission to post his picture on Facebook or any other social media," the warrant said. The lawyer claimed a juvenile family member was "affected by the crash" because of the post.
The images and accident summary remain on the fire company's Facebook page.
"Ultimately what you have here is a law that's criminalizing the publication of photos that are taken in a public space and that involve a newsworthy incident like a car accident, and that is the concern," Silverman said. "This is a PIO whose duty is to inform the public, and he was doing so by taking these photographs and posting them."
On March 5, Radford met with Frischling at Montville Town Hall. When questioning Frischling about the photos, Radford asked if he obtains permission from victims to take the images and post them.
"The accused stated that for one, permission in the right of the public view is not required and any face is blurred," the warrant said.
Frischling told Radford "there is no requirement to obtain any permission from a victim in the right of the public view in any photo," according to the warrant. It said he also referred to the victims' faces as "pixelated" and "unidentifiable."
Frischling told Radford the Chesterfield Fire Company has an internal policy to pixelate or blur any photos that show a victim's face, the warrant states.
On Thursday, Fire Chief Keith Truex, who accompanied Frischling when he was interviewed by Radford, confirmed that Frischling was not on administrative leave nor has any action been taken against him due to his arrest.
There were no court records on the state's judicial website for Frischling's case as of Thursday.
(c)2021 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.)