Portland must address incidents of journalists assaulted by police
In the middle of a protest, with adrenaline pumping, fatigue setting in, and no end in sight, accidents happen.
A police officer assaults a reporter? Well, that could happen.
If it occurs twice, there might be a need for analysis.
When it happens three, four, five times, well, Portland Police Bureau, you have a problem.
A problem that needs to be addressed. Immediately.
If a recent spate of journalists getting shoved around by cops is mere coincidence, command staff needs to have a stern conversation with the rank-and-file to make sure it comes to an end.
If it's not mere coincidence, then it's a significant escalation in the reports of community violence at the hands of the police, which has become one of the most pressing issues locally, throughout Oregon, and across our nation.
Portland Tribune reporter Zane Sparling was covering Sunday night's brawl between police and protesters in downtown Portland. When he saw police barreling his way, he stepped around a corner to avoid a collision. One of the officers — so far unidentified — came after him.
In a Tweet that has been seen more than 456,000 times, Sparling can be heard shouting, "Media!" The officer shoves Sparling into a wall and shouts, "I don't give a sh--! Get down!"
If this were a one-off incident, we'd be concerned and we'd express those concerns with the mayor and police chief, which we've done.
But it's part of a larger pattern.
As reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive, veteran photographer Beth Nakamura said an officer shoved her forcefully from behind with a baton, the night before Sparling's assault.
Nakamura said she was holding her press ID, camera in her hands above her head and had been following the police orders to leave. When she identified herself as a journalist, she says the officer responded with an expletive and said he didn't care.
The Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has begun gathering anecdotes such as these.
On June 5, police officers reportedly drew weapons on an associate of broadcaster Robert Evans while she was attempting to get a license plate number of a pickup that nearly ran into them.
On June 6, independent reporter Sergio Olmos was pushed by an officer while trying to communicate and comply; he was wearing visible press ID. (Olmos has written several stories for the Portland Tribune). The contact is caught on video.
Also on June 6, Donovan Farley, a contributor to Willamette Week, said that after identifying himself as press and disengaging from recording an arrest, a Portland police officer beat and pepper-sprayed him while Farley was walking away from the scene, his back turned.
The list goes on.
On Tuesday, the publisher and managing editor of the Portland Tribune spoke via conference call with Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Chuck Lovell, and members of the mayor's staff and City Attorney's office. Wheeler said he takes the situation seriously and that it could become a matter of further directives and training with Portland Police.
When asked if the officers who assaulted Sparling and Nakamura have been identified by command staff and, if so, what are the next steps, Chief Lovell said he did not know.
Granted, the chief is brand new on the job, having been sworn in exactly one week ago. Still, we think these incidents should have been brought more urgently to his attention.
We understand that journalists covering violent protests are taking risks. That's part of the job. And, we are very aware that many protesters, including several demonstrating peacefully, have suffered much more serious injuries from police than the journalists listed here.
But if there is an organized attempt by rank-and-file Portland police to intimidate accredited journalists, then we cannot overstate how serious a situation that would be. Journalists are on the streets, risking their safety, telling all sides of these confrontational protests, so that Oregonians can get a full, independent account of what's going on.
Journalism is the only job embedded in the U.S. Constitution, and it's there for precisely such history-making events as these.
If it's not an organized attempt by cops to intimidate reporters, then it's clear that leadership, from Wheeler — who serves as Police Commissioner — through Lovell, through his assistant chiefs, commanders, captains and lieutenants, need to reign in officers and to remind them that assaulting anyone unprovoked is contrary to the policies and procedures of the department.
On Thursday, in response to a second letter from the Society of Professional Journalists, Wheeler and Lovell issued a statement saying they had reminded officers "of their obligation to support a free press as legally permissible" and vowed to review tactics to ensure members of the media are free to exercise their constitutional rights."
The Portland Tribune will continue to cover the protests and the changes in policing, funding of police and city policy. Our job now will include tracking and reporting on how Wheeler and Lovell respond to these documented instances of police assaulting the media.
The message from these two leaders should be clear. If it is organized or intentional intimidation: Knock it off immediately.
If it's not organized, then the mayor and chief must get their house in order by identifying the officers involved and taking the necessary corrective steps.
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