Treatment of journalists questioned in protest report

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Police Commission approves report on Echo Park protests

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The Police Commission has unanimously approved a report from the police department on its handling of contentious demonstrations in March at Echo Park Lake, including its detention of journalists, but local journalism organizations have denounced the report as insufficient and asked commissioners to reject it.

The report will next go to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council for review.

During the protests, officers arrested 182 people for failure to disperse. On June 11, City Attorney Mike Feuer announced that 179 people arrested for failure to disperse would not be charged. Journalists — including the Los Angeles Times’ James Queally and Spectrum News 1’s Kate Cagle — were detained and released shortly after, but two reporters for the nonprofit online outlet Knock L.A. were detained for hours.

In the after-action report, the Los Angeles Police Department said it needs a better system for dealing with the rise in independent journalists and “observers,” and may need “a formal policy or specific guidance regarding what actions field supervisors and officers should take when [they] detain someone at the scene of an unlawful assembly.”

Deputy Chief Alfred Labrada alleged that activist “internet bloggers” pose as journalists while “actively antagonizing the police.”

The department’s report similarly said that “many activists double as online reporters for alternative news sources” and that they “expect to be given free access during crowd control situations, while antagonizing officers and impeding police action.”

The report recommends that the department consider publishing “a formal policy or specific guidance” on what officers should do if they arrest an accredited member of the media during an unlawful assembly. The department’s policy states that it should accommodate the media, but it doesn’t have a policy to automatically release them if they are detained during an unlawful assembly.

The public should be disturbed by the Los Angeles Police Department’s repeated insistence in this report that it has the right to arrest journalists standing in public spaces whenever it decides that the First Amendment has become inconvenient,” the Executive Committee of Media Guild of the West said in a statement Aug. 2, the day before the commission meeting. “We urge state lawmakers and Gov. Newsom to enact SB 98 to recognize the rightful role of the press in documenting protests without police interference.”

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Los Angeles chapter said in a letter to the commission that it “rejects the LAPD’s distinction between ‘legitimate’ and advocacy journalists” and that “the First Amendment makes no content-based distinction among members of the press, or among citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and neither do we.”

Rampart Capt. Alfonso Lopez also told the commission that members of the media who were detained did not identify themselves as media.

Despite five dispersal orders and two orders given directly to members of the media, no one from the crowd identified themselves as members of the media,” Lopez said. “It was not until after the crowd had been placed under arrest and officers were individually detaining people, that the individuals identified themselves,” he said.

During the Police Commission’s meeting, Spectrum News 1’s Cagle tweeted — along with a video of her being detained during the protests while she was identifying herself as a reporter — that the department was erasing her from the media arrests in their report to commissioners.

According to Los Angeles Press Club, the department did not collaborate with any of the detained journalists, or journalists shot with less lethal munitions, for the report.

“[Interviewing the journalists] seems like a basic step for any investigation. Without it, the report’s discussion of police-press interactions is a rough draft, not a reliable accounting,” Adam Rose, chair of the press rights committee for the L.A. Press Club, said in a call into the meeting. “It doesn’t address potential problems with dispersal orders or ‘Crespo’ areas. There are unsubstantiated claims and mischaracterizations caused by missing context. And abuses have been overlooked.

You should be aware of how LAPD treated a few people who were just trying to do their job at Echo Park,” he added, citing Cagle and Queally, who also identified himself while being detained.

Rose also cited two photographers who were shot by officers with less lethal munitions: freelancer Christian Monterrosa, who was credentialed by the LAPD, and the Los Angeles Times’ Luis Sinco, who he said was “shot unprovoked and inexplicably, all on video.”

Additionally, Rose noted that student journalist Keliyah Williams of the L.A. Collegian was arrested and James Duffy, also of the Collegian, was not given access to a news conference.

Rose said none of the journalists was interviewed for the report

The SPJ’s Los Angeles chapter also expressed concern that journalists who were involved in the protests were not interviewed “to create an accurate and well-rounded account,” according to SPJ LA’s letter to the police commission.

It also said the department misunderstands or misrepresents the use of media pens, saying that journalists are not required to remain in the “Crespo” press area and doing such would make it virtually impossible to cover a fast-breaking incident.

Lopez told commissioners that “one reporter admitted that he purposely left the ‘Crespo’ area because he wanted to be where the action was.”

He also said that two “independent journalist video streamers” didn’t identify themselves and another “has a history of refusing to follow directions and has been arrested on multiple occasions.”

At the peak of the demonstrations, the LAPD deployed 750 officers to close the park and respond to protests. The cost to pay officers’ salaries and overtime, as well as cost of “services rendered” by the LAPD during the closure on March 24-25 was about $1.3 million. The department spent about $740,000 during the cleanup on March 26-27.

During the protests, officers reported using five rounds of the 40 mm “less-lethal” launchers, six rounds of the 37mm “less-lethal” launchers and 12 rounds of bean bag “less-lethal” launchers. However, the report says “there is a large gap between the level of documentation that goes into a traditional [non-categorical use of force] incident, and the level of reporting and investigation that accompanies the same type of force used during a crowd control situation.”

The report recommends creating a system to document all relevant information when less-lethal munitions are deployed.

We should not be combing through hours and hours of body-worn video and other video, even video from media sources, to identify our less lethal munitions use,” LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala told commissioners.

The report also urges the city to make the full staffing of park rangers a top priority and says many of the problems at the March 25 protest might have been avoided if the encampment had not been allowed to grow so large.

Currently, park rangers are missing nearly half their allotted positions. They simply do not have the resources to monitor every park in the city,” the report states.

According to the report, at the time of the protests the Department of Recreation and Parks had 31 rangers assigned to oversee six regional parks and all of the city’s “pocket parks,” such as Echo Park. Park rangers are sworn peace officers who receive basic police training. They’re authorized to make arrests but do not carry firearms, according to Los Angeles Municipal Code 63.41.

The report said that if the department had more park rangers to control the expansion of the Echo Park encampment, the “full-scale closure” of the park would never have been needed.

Word spread on March 22 that the park would be closed for repairs, but many in the community saw it as a veiled effort to remove the hundreds of unhoused Angelenos who took up residence there. The park underwent $600,0000 worth of cleaning and repairs before reopening to the public on May 26.

Many neighbors and parkgoers had complained about trash and safety issues related to the encampment.

The report says the LAPD has initiated 12 personnel complaints for alleged police misconduct connected to the incident.

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