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Heavy-Handed Police Response to Media in LA Comes After New Law

FILE - In this March 24, 2021, file photo, Los Angeles police officers move in to arrest demonstrators in the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment in Los Angeles.
FILE - In this March 24, 2021, file photo, Los Angeles police officers move in to arrest demonstrators in the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment in Los Angeles.

Focused on filming a police car, Vishal Singh was shocked to look up from his camera and find himself “staring down the barrel” of a weapon.

“[I] was just kind of taken aghast and I just asked, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Singh told VOA.

The freelance journalist’s press badge was on display but the police officer, carrying equipment that fires less-lethal rounds such as beanbags or rubber bullets, was insistent, telling Singh he had to leave.

“Not even ‘get out of the way,’ just ‘you need to go home,’ ” Singh said.

The incident was one of several interactions between police and media during June 24 protests in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities in response to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion access.

At least eight journalists were assaulted, detained or had equipment damaged covering the protests in Los Angeles that day, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a coalition of news websites and media rights groups that document violations against media.

The incidents came despite California in 2021 passing SB-98 — a bill designed to prevent police from obstructing journalists, including in blocked-off areas.

The Los Angeles Police Department did not respond to VOA’s emails requesting comment.

But city police Chief Michel Moore told the Los Angeles Times his department would investigate the media complaints and take action where necessary.

“If the officer is found to have ignored the law, ignored the policy, then disciplinary action will follow,” Moore said.

However, Tom Saggau, whose media communications firm represents the L.A. Police Protective League, told VOA it can be difficult for police at protests to determine who is a journalist, and said that officers at protests are increasingly met with violence.

Media relations

Tensions between media and Los Angeles police are not new.

In 2020 and 2021, the L.A. Press Club documented 40 incidents of apparent misconduct toward journalists, including assaults, injuries, equipment damage or seizure, and arrests. At least 26 incidents involved journalists of color.

Cases often involved freelancers or journalists working at less established or smaller media outlets.

So, the Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and other organizations lobbied for rights and protections to be enshrined in law.

When the SB-98 bill was debated, several California police associations objected on the grounds of security, the increased physical danger officers are working under and concerns over provisions that allow media to access restricted areas.

One of those to oppose the bill is the California Police Chiefs Association. Chris Catren, the association president, told VOA via email, "The new law has the potential to prevent safety professionals from doing our job safely to protect the public during potentially dangerous situations.”

Catren said the association had serious concerns about the legislation, including that “it allows unidentified media to deliberately interfere with emergency personnel — police, fire and medics — during major protests."

Despite the objections, the law passed. A coalition of media groups and legal experts then worked with police on how the legislation should be implemented.

But journalists say the incidents last month suggest the law is not being applied correctly.

“What we were seeing on [that] evening from law enforcement was against what is the law on the books,” said Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins.

The Emmy-award winning journalist and president of the SPJ Greater Los Angeles chapter took part in efforts to pass the law and foster better press-police relations.

Media obstructed

Singh and other journalists whom VOA interviewed said police pushed or obstructed them, pointed less lethal weapons in their direction and did not appear to know or be willing to recognize the media’s rights.

“I was filming officers pointing their less lethal weapons at protesters at a very close range and firing,” Singh said. "An officer grabbed me [by] the shoulder and just threw me. I weigh like 90 pounds. ... If it weren't for protesters catching me, I would have fallen to the ground.”

At another point, several journalists found themselves detained in a kettle, a term for when a crowd is contained on a street by lines of police officers blocking exits.

When Singh and the others asked police if an unlawful assembly had been declared, and where the dispersal route was, officers did not answer, he said.

“The police were being incredibly hyperaggressive,” said Jake Green, an independent photojournalist who was covering the protest for agencies including Sipa USA. “They were breaking the line several times in order to sort of get their jabs in.”

Green says he usually maintains a distance of around 10 feet (about 3 meters) from the police line when covering protests, but as he looked away to frame a shot, he felt officers shove him.

Jonathan Peltz, a regular contributor at the nonprofit news outlet Knock LA, said he had less lethal weapons aimed at him as he slowly backed away from police with his hands raised.

“I understand that they're in a situation where they're trying to control crowd movements, but in my mind, if I'm flashing a pass, I believe they should understand that I'm legally entitled to newsgathering,” Peltz said.

The journalist is currently suing the Los Angeles Police Department over a 2021 arrest for failure to disperse while covering a protest over the dismantling of a homeless encampment. Peltz was one of about a dozen journalists detained on that occasion.

Police across the U.S. have previously emphasized the difficulty of dealing with media at protests, saying it is hard to check credentials, and that sometimes journalists are caught in arrests when officers clear an area or impose a curfew.

Saggau, whose company represents the L.A. Police Protective League, also acknowledged the difficulty for officers in determining who is a journalist and who is “there to hurt others.”

“The officers’ frustration isn’t for folks that are legally, lawfully and peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Saggau told VOA. “The frustration is with those that take advantage of every situation under the sun to target police officers.”

Another problem, according to Adam Rose, chair of the press rights committee at the LA Press Club, is that current training may not be sufficient.

“Over and over we've seen, within the department, they have requested more training for their officers, and they have been mandated to have more training, whether it's [by] rulings or settlements,” Rose said. “And inevitably, within a couple of years, they cut that training.”

The Los Angeles police did not respond to VOA’s emails requesting comment on training.

Despite SB-98’s limited effect, Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, believes the law was a significant step.

“I think L.A. has done a really important and large job of saying, ‘Looking at what's happening here, how can we work to correct [it]?’” McCudden said.

By enacting legislation, she said, it is easier to review incidents like the June protests and say, “Well, here's where that new legislation really protected journalists, and here's where we have places to still improve.”

Blaize-Hopkins of the SPJ/LA said it’s hard to tell why the law has not yet improved interactions. The press unions plan to meet with the LAPD in the coming weeks.

“If it’s an issue of training, if it’s an issue of making sure that there’s broad knowledge among the rank and file and also the officers that are on the ground, then our coalition is more than happy to help,” Blaize-Hopkins said.