In late June, as protesters in Los Angeles took to the streets in opposition to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, journalists covering the demonstrations found themselves at the center of another issue of concern: the treatment of the press by police officers during protests.
Videos of officers using excessive force against journalists were posted online, prompting questions about the lack of progress on resolving a decades-old problem, including the May 2020 George Floyd protests.
SB 98 was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021 and is aimed at protecting journalists in the field.
Adam Rose, chair of the press rights committee for the Los Angeles Press Club, has compiled a database of at least 11 incidents from that day where officers handcuffed, pushed, and hit several journalists, as well as interfered with their ability to report on the demonstrations.
At least one of the demonstrators was accused of attempted murder on a police officer. The demonstration, however, was largely peaceful, with some protesters marching onto freeways. Four officers were injured, including one burned by a makeshift flamethrower and another struck by a rock.
Police used batons to block access to some areas, despite reporters’ efforts to get closer, witnesses said.
LAPD’s actions appear to be in violation of a state law, SB 98, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021 and is aimed at protecting journalists in the field.
There is “no indication that LAPD has developed and implemented a clear, consistent policy in compliance with SB 98.” — ACLU, First Amendment Coalition
The bill, which was passed in response to acts of reported mistreatment towards the press during the George Floyd protests, prohibits law enforcement from intentionally assaulting, interfering with, or obstructing journalists covering protests, demonstrations, or other civic actions. It bars law enforcement officers from citing reporters for their failure to disperse or for a violation of curfew as long as they are gathering, receiving or processing information intended for the public.
In response to events at the June protests, the American Civil Liberties Union and First Amendment Coalition wrote a letter to LAPD Chief Michel Moore stating that there is “no indication that LAPD has developed and implemented a clear, consistent policy in compliance with SB 98.”
In response to these videos and the outrage from several journalistic and free speech organizations, Chief Moore told the L.A. Times that the department will investigate the complaints.
Rose points out that while there have been conversations between representatives of journalist organizations and the department about these issues, “we are still awaiting accountability for incidents from more than a year ago and from just the last couple months.”
“We pass laws in the legislature and we expect them to be followed, especially by law enforcement.” — Kevin Baker
One example of this lack of accountability can be seen in the aftermath of the demonstrations over the clearance of a homeless encampment at Echo Park in March 2021, in which several journalists were detained or shot with rubber bullets. The Los Angeles City Council ordered a report on these detentions, which has not been completed more than a year later.
In the face of the apparent inability to comply with SB 98, the question arises over just how effective the law has been.
One explanation for its lack of teeth may be an amendment added to the legislation which states that it cannot be used as the basis for criminal liability, effectively leaving enforcement of the law to the police departments themselves.
As the ACLU/FAC letter points out, a policy of enforcement is something the LAPD has yet to implement.
“We pass laws in the legislature and we expect them to be followed, especially by law enforcement,” says Kevin Baker, who was involved in passing this bill and serves as the Director of Governmental Affairs for ACLU California Action.
The debate over how to enforce something like SB 98, he says, brings up the age-old question of “who polices the police?”
The database of misconduct against journalists compiled by Adam Rose includes a vastly disproportionate number of journalists of color.
Rose, another person heavily involved with SB 98, said that many of those who supported the bill initially hoped to see some kind of criminal liability or forfeiture of qualified immunity for officers who violate the law, but that “it may not have been politically palatable to put that strong of teeth into this particular bill.”
In the aftermath of the abortion protests, the Los Angeles Journalists Coalition met with Chief Moore to discuss ways that the department and journalists can work together on implementing a policy on SB 98. In the meeting, they discussed an idea to meet quarterly and talk about these issues.
Some of the long-running topics of concern discussed in the meeting and in documents provided to the department included how to identify journalists, improving the process of releasing bodycam footage when these events occur, completing the report ordered by the L.A. City Council and expanding the scope to include recent incidents, and to act on training recommendations provided to them by the LAJC.
Several of these recommendations call for the LAPD to have officers receive updated First Amendment, diversity, and crowd control training to improve communication and interactions with journalists in the field.
The issue of diversity is a particularly important one as the database of misconduct against journalists compiled by Rose includes a vastly disproportionate number of journalists of color.
This is also backed up by LAPD data on Penal Code 148, which focuses on obstructing law enforcement. It shows that 87% of those cited under the statute are Black and Latino, despite those groups making up only 57% of the city’s population.
While Rose hopes the department will comply with the law of their own volition and hasn’t yet pursued additional legislation, he “may be strongly in favor of adding something that mandates accountability for these continued and ongoing violations.”
Addressing the question of who polices the police presented earlier, Baker says that it is the people and the government who do that.
“But we can’t do it without the media because they perform that critical role of being our eyes and ears,” he says, “that is what makes these issues so important.”