When Police Cracked Down on Reporters and Photographers One Chaotic Night in LA’s Echo Park

From an NPR story by David Folkenflik and Marc Rivers headlined “When police cracked down on reporters on one chaotic night in LA”s Echo Park”:

Bodycam footage shows police shooting rubber bullets at reporters. Smartphone videos capture police taking them into custody. Throwing them to the ground. Striking them with batons.

Over the past two years, 200 journalists have been arrested or detained while doing their jobs, right here in the U.S. Journalists have complained that police kept them far from the action, shut them down, even brutalized them and destroyed their equipment — in short, intimidated and prevented them from reporting.

One night of chaos in Los Angeles stands out, however, both for illustrating the collapse of the relationship between these two powerful institutions — the police and the news media — and for helping to spark reforms in California.

A year ago this month, as police prepared to sweep Echo Park Lake of homeless encampments, protests broke out. The reporters who descended on the scene to record it were caught in the middle, as police were unable or unwilling to distinguish between reporters and activists.

According to press advocates, police detained at least 16 journalists. Two reporters and an independent news blogger were arrested and held at a police station for hours. Two other reporters were zip-tied at the scene. Officers shot two photojournalists with what are called less-lethal rubber bullets.

The Los Angeles Police Department is facing legal challenges stemming from officers’ actions that night and would only address in broad terms how it treats the press.

While it’s important for the police to permit journalists to do their jobs, says LAPD Capt. Stacy Spell, the commanding officer of the force’s media relations team, that’s far from the department’s only priority.

“When we’re looking at situations where there is either civil unrest or protest or after sporting events, our greatest concern is ensuring that there is preservation of life and that there’s preservation of property,” Spell tells NPR. “It’s very gray at times as to who’s out there and with what intentions.”

Others outside the LAPD don’t mince words about Echo Park.

“It was a disaster for the police department,” says former LA Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, a former head of counterterrorism and special operations for the department. “These are not our enemies.”

For some of the journalists who were at Echo Park, the actions by police served as confirmation that law enforcement could not be trusted. For others, it revealed the erasure of whatever respect — or at least guarded recognition — they believed police had for the work they did.

Here are some of their stories

Luis Sinco, photographer for the Los Angeles Times: shot by rubber bullets

Luis Sinco, 62, says his photo assignments for The Los Angeles Times have allowed him to travel repeatedly to the crossroads of history. He has captured the fight for Fallujah in Iraq and the downfall of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. In a chaotic moment, Sinco says, he has two imperatives: to take compelling pictures and to get out safely.

Echo Park’s striking views of downtown Los Angeles often draw camera crews for nationally televised sports events. The lake offers visitors swan-shaped paddle boats, a concession stand, picnic tables, playgrounds and abundant wildlife around an artificial lake more than a century old.

During the pandemic, however, Echo Park became a haven for people without homes. An encampment evolved into an unexpected community, residents declared, affording vegetable gardens, makeshift plumbing and enduring social ties. It was more like a dystopia, according to its critics, feeding violence, drug use, trash and crime, and stripping the park of its recreational purpose for people living nearby.

On March 23, 2021, the Los Angeles Times revealed previously secret plans to clear the park. The city council member who represents the area and local social service agencies promised to provide transitional housing and social services. (Advocates for those displaced argued the initiative had mixed success at best.)

Over the next two days, activists descended upon the neighborhood, some chanting, some cheering, others fanning out to offer assistance or organize resistance.

When Sinco arrived on March 25, 2021, he saw protesters and police haranguing each other at the northern lip of the park over plans to remove the homeless people at the encampment. Police had tried to force reporters to a staging area a block to the west. Sinco wanted to be closer to the action to capture it all.

Late that evening, Sinco says, he was shooting photos from behind a trio of demonstrators when he heard a loud POP. A videographer tweeted out a video of what happened next: a police officer firing into a throng that was making no effort to move toward the officer.

In the video, it’s easy to recognize Sinco as a news photographer: He holds a camera. A camera bag is slung around his neck and chest. The rubber bullet grazes the side of Sinco’s leg. Sinco can be seen limping away.

“Sadistic,” says Sinco, who says he was only mildly injured that night. “What was the point of that, right? I mean, it could have hurt me more badly. Thank God it didn’t.”

It wasn’t the first time Sinco was struck by rubber bullets. On May 30, 2020, in protests in downtown LA over the murder of George Floyd, police shot Sinco with rubber bullets that destroyed his camera and left him with painful bruising.

Sinco says protesters can prove menacing, but adds, “I think that [police] are trying to treat the American public now as more like an occupied population. You see it more as a military presence in some ways.”

Kate Cagle, reporter for Spectrum News 1: detailed by police

Kate Cagle, a reporter for the local all-news channel Spectrum News 1, says she had expected the police to let her do her job that night in Echo Park.

“The last time I had been at a protest, LAPD officers had actually escorted me into the area where the unlawful assembly had been declared so we could cover the mass arrests,” says Cagle, who is 34. “I wear my credential. My crew has professional equipment. So I fully expected to be allowed to leave right away and was shocked when we were told we couldn’t leave.”

Instead, Cagle’s camera crew recorded her being taken into custody just as she was about to go live on her station’s newscast.

“You have my name,” Cagle can be heard telling police on her station’s video as officers whisked her away. She gestured back toward the camera. “I have to stay with my crew. I have to stay with my crew.”

Officers instead detained Cagle for more than an hour, according to a later police review; for part of that time, her hands were zip-tied behind her back.

Cagle says that until that point, she had believed that the police would respect her professionalism even during moments of upheaval.

“I no longer felt like they were providing safety for me,” Cagle tells NPR. “I felt like we’re on our own.”

Cagle, who is white, says she appreciates the attention her handling has received, but says Black and Latino reporters in Los Angeles are more likely to face rougher treatment.

Police cite trouble distinguishing reporters from activists

Now, stop to consider the challenges confronting the LAPD by March 2021 as it encountered the press at Echo Park.

First, recognize the nature of the protests themselves.

“However noble their aims might be, when they get in the face of police, they’re cursing them out,” says the LA Times‘ Queally of many protesters. Sometimes, he says, such interactions become even more intense: “They’re insulting them on a personal level. They’re [making] comments about officers’ weight. Often you’d see officers that were not white accused of being ‘race traitors’.”

The LAPD is 50% Latino, according to department figures. Another 9% are Black and 10% are Asian American, including Filipino Americans.

“I’m not saying that validates any sort of force reaction,” Queally says, but adds protesters are “not exactly looking for a warm, peaceful conversation.”

NPR unsuccessfully sought comment from several current police officials about what happened at Echo Park, including a commanding officer present that night, an internal affairs officer involved in investigating complaints about the use of police force, and the LAPD’s top civilian official, who oversees its legal policies. NPR also sought without luck to track down other police officers who were there. And LAPD Chief Michel Moore declined NPR’s request for an interview, through his spokesman.

Capt. Stacy Spell joined the LAPD in 1994 after a stint in the U.S. Army. He worked in homicide, gangs and internal affairs before becoming the head of the LAPD’s communications division in August 2020. Citing litigation and other challenges to the department’s behavior at Echo Park, Spell says he could only speak to NPR in general terms.

He says recent protests have occurred against the backdrop of the pandemic and allegations of police misconduct nationwide, as well as in Los Angeles.

“There were tensions upon tensions,” Spell tells NPR. Tensions, he says, that can test police officers’ patience. But, he insists, “Overall, I think most of our officers engaged in the most professional way that they could under the circumstances.”

While the First Amendment does not expressly grant privileges to a special class of professionals called journalists, it protects the rights of people who are doing journalism. Until this year, California state law was ambiguous on reporters’ right to be in public spaces during upheaval. Police interpreted the laws to say dispersal orders applied to journalists too.

“Arguably you could have five attorneys look at one law and have different interpretations,” Spell says. “It’s particularly more challenging for officers who are on the ground and are dealing with the situation as it’s volatile and ongoing.”

Today anyone with a mobile phone can be a videographer. Police who regularly wave reporters past cordoned-off protest lines now tell their bosses that they have trouble determining who genuinely is a reporter. Several news-making videos of police misconduct were taken by eyewitnesses who are not reporters. In 2021, the Pulitzer board awarded a special citation to Darnella Frazier, the teenager who videotaped the murder of George Floyd.

“Once upon a time there was a very traditional look as to what the media looked like,” Spell says. “And now there are more independents and more people who post on social media or online or use some form of technology to express their views or their points or their stories.”

The governor makes a U-turn on press rights

Over the past two years, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker and other journalism advocacy groups have charted an increase in what they say is repressive police violence toward journalists across the country. Numerous journalists in Minneapolis were tear-gassed and shot with projectiles by law enforcement during protests over George Floyd. Federal prosecutors are investigating whether police in Louisville, Ky., and Phoenix, Ariz., have interfered in protected First Amendment activities of journalists and others present, according to a U.S. Justice Department spokesperson.

Yet events in Los Angeles stand out.

A statewide database of incidents compiled by Adam Rose, a former news editor who leads the Los Angeles Press Club’s press rights committee, reflects dozens of such incidents along the way, especially in greater LA.

“The point of a free press is really to inform the public of, in particular, things of great public interest, like police actions,” Rose says. “These are things that would chill what we would consider part of this constitutional right and the need — not just a right, but a responsibility — to inform the public.”

On Sept. 30 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made it clear reporters have the right to be present in public spaces to document protests, civil uprisings and arrests.

The bill was heatedly opposed by several law enforcement groups. In a letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, Newsom affirmed the importance of news gathering, but added he was concerned people who could pose a security risk could gain access to restricted areas — including white nationalists and extreme anarchists.

After Echo Park, front-line reporters added their voices to newspaper companies and First Amendment groups to lobby for those protections. And in October 2021, the governor signed a strengthened press rights bill into law. No longer could police claim orders to disperse at protests and other civil disturbances applied to working journalists.

“Normally journalists don’t lobby,” says Rose. “That’s not part of the job of journalism and it’s often the wrong thing to do.” In this case, he said, their advocacy for their ability to do their jobs helped reshape public policy.

An early test of the new law came in February at the parade celebrating the LA Rams’ Super Bowl win. Reporters gave the LAPD fairly strong marks for letting them document the parade and for allowing the “staging area” to float along with the day’s festivities, rather than staying fixed in a single isolated spot.

Journalists tell NPR they’re heartened. But they remain wary, with strong memories of Echo Park.


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