From kid gloves to rubber bullets: How the LAPD's ties to news media unraveled
The harsh treatment of journalists by police at Los Angeles' Echo Park Lake a year ago this month drew outrage, but it did not occur in a vacuum.
The melee served as a bookend to months of protest and tumult — much of it directed at law enforcement agencies — following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in late May 2020.
Police across the country found themselves charged with containing the protests for social justice — many of them focused on police violence — and suppressing the associated rioting and destruction that periodically ensued.
The year 2020 set records for detentions of journalists in the United States. In 2021, that figure dropped but was still high. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker project, 59 journalists were arrested or detained across the nation.
More than a quarter of those incidents occurred on that single night last March in Echo Park, where protests against plans to sweep an encampment of homeless people picked up steam.
Reporters say they ran into a buzz saw, caught between angry protesters and indifferent or vindictive police officers.
The Los Angeles Police Department says it has worked in good faith to improve relations with the news media — beginning long before Echo Park and renewed in earnest in the year since. It also says it was caught up in waves of change outside its control: changes in technology, in the nature of the news media, and in society more generally.
As the protests flared from 2020 through 2021, the LAPD lost control of its image and its cool, its critics charge.
Local news helped fashion the LAPD's mystique
The LAPD's mystique had been the stuff of legends and grist for Hollywood, a collaboration stretching back more than three-quarters of a century. Its reputation for efficiency and incorruptibility was built up in the pages of local newspapers, often working hand in hand with police officials. It was promoted nationally on television shows and movies, often with police on the payroll. In turn, police often went easy on movie stars acting badly.
Tensions over law enforcement conduct flared into public view at times, such as the deadly and destructive Watts riots, prompted by the arrest of a Black motorist by a white California Highway Patrol officer in LA. Yet the press often missed the key stories due to its own racism and close working ties to police. In one infamous instance in 1979, the Los Angeles Times botched its reporting on police shooting and killing a Black woman on her front lawn who had been confrontational over her gas bill.
A couple of years later, the Times wrote a piece headlined "marauders from inner city prey on LA's suburbs." The racial subtext, with direct references to ghettos, barrios, and a permanent underclass, was hardly hidden. The newspaper apologized for its record in an editorial and a 2021 column by Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper in 2018.
Over the course of the 1980s, a tougher journalistic stance emerged in the Times and other media outlets, as chronicled by the LA Times' late media critic David Shaw. And then decades of scandal over brutality, racism and corruption arrived for the LAPD, kicked off by the beating of motorist Rodney King by officers in 1991. It was followed by the Ramparts scandal in the late 1990s, which implicated dozens of police officers in violence and corruption and cost the department nearly $100 million in settlements and payouts.
Federal oversight of the LAPD would last a dozen years
A federal judge ordered supervision by the U.S. Justice Department that would last a dozen years. Police say that helped usher in an era of reform at the LAPD in which they now take pride.
"They really see themselves as the gold standard for policing in the U.S.," says Kate Cagle, an anchor for Spectrum News 1 in Los Angeles who often covers law enforcement and social issues. "They're really proud of that."
The scandals over police brutality and corruption also were accompanied by legal fights over the rights and treatment of reporters. Rough police treatment of reporters during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles inspired a lawsuit. The ensuing settlement with seven journalists led to the requirement that the LAPD had to establish media staging grounds for protests and public events at which journalists could legally gather without harassment.
"There's some apprehension of the press" inside the force, says former LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who retired from the force in 2017 after 35 years. "There's a segment of the population within police departments, I think, that are standoffish and don't trust the press. And the press has done some things that have been kind of harmful to their reputation and [to] the character of policing."
But Downing says he has appreciated some of the tougher news coverage, and his philosophy was to find ways to work with the press. "If you ever said anything that was not completely truthful, by the end of the day, whatever you hid would be exposed," Downing says.
Under former LA Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who led the LAPD from 2002 to 2009, police officers at all levels of the force were empowered to speak directly to the press, Downing says.
"A war against the media"
Still, frictions repeatedly surfaced.
A jury awarded $1.7 million to a video journalist for the local Fox TV station who alleged she had been beaten by police at a May Day protest for immigration rights at LA's MacArthur Park in 2007.
"There was a war against the media out there that day,'' the attorney for camerawoman Patricia Ballaz had told the jury.
A producer for KPCC, a large NPR member station, sued over mistreatment at the same protests. She received $39,000.
Over time, reporters say, the staging ground established by the court ruling became a mechanism to keep them far away from protests and police actions, rather than a guarantee they could be present to cover them. Body cameras were meant to offer another conduit of accountability. Downing says he is skeptical when police officers claim that the cameras malfunction. That's a way to avoid scrutiny, he says.
Several court rulings over the decades sought to establish guidelines over how the LAPD establishes order during chaos.
In LA, as in much of the nation, the George Floyd protests would send police practices careening off the rails once more. The handling of the press would often serve as a warning for how police treated others: After all, many reporters have major media corporations to stand behind them and major platforms on which to air their grievances. Most people do not.
A new day in media confounds the police
The decline of long-established press outlets has created breathing room for newer, lesser-known news media. The rocky fortunes of the alternative paper LA Weekly led to a diaspora of journalists seeking platforms and pay elsewhere.
LA Taco surfaced as a home to food and culture writers and evolved into a site offering news as well. Lexis-Olivier Ray, who started as a freelance photographer for LA Taco, became its first full-time reporter, writing pieces on law enforcement, social justice and city policies. He became caught up in mass detentions by police at Echo Park last March.
So were reporters from the news site Knock LA, founded by members of a progressive grassroots group called Ground Game LA. The site's agenda remains clearly left-of-center, with sympathetic pieces about immigrants, affordable housing and the rights of criminal defendants. Yet Knock LA's articles appear to be rooted in reported facts, the building blocks of news. Knock LA has posted investigative news reports about the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which is run separately from the LAPD, for example.
Another journalist caught in the fray with police was independent news videographer Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, who posts primarily on his social media accounts and as a freelancer on left-of-center news blogs. In an internal memo, the LAPD refers to LA Taco's Ray and Beckner-Carmitchel as people who "self-identify as members of the press," while casting doubt on that status.
Why should the police get to determine who counts as a journalist and who doesn't? Ray asks.
That night at Echo Park, police arrested Beckner-Carmitchel and Knock LA reporters Kate Gallagher and Jon Peltz and took them into formal custody. Ultimately, no reporters were prosecuted for any crime, though the LAPD's formal after-action report about the night's events would cite "a legal justification for arrest" of journalists.
The department's chief spokesman, LAPD Capt. Stacy Spell, says some journalists from newer outlets — or who post primarily on social media — act in adversarial or confrontational ways toward officers. Spell says protesters sometimes wear badges or other labels identifying them as reporters to confuse police.
Adam Rose, the head of the press rights committee of the LA Press Club, says he always asks police officials for proof that reporters are interfering with their law enforcement responsibilities. He says he has never been offered any evidence of such incidents. And as the LAPD acknowledges, people do not need to be accredited or licensed to practice journalism.
Spell says his media relations unit seeks to train rank-and-file officers on how to handle reporters, noting that they can often convey important safety messages to the public. The LAPD should also work, he says, to build better ties to nontraditional journalists and unconventional news outlets.
During his tenure, Spell has personally called journalists and met with Rose and leaders from the local chapters of the Radio Television News Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to address their concerns. Spell's training video for reporters, produced jointly with an official of the RTNA, was publicly posted in April 2021, a month after Echo Park.
Such outreach was needed, as relations had been deteriorating for months.
Reporters caught in the undertow of protests
On May 30, 2020, protests erupted after the posting of an eyewitness video of Floyd's murder by a police officer. That night, as they covered demonstrators marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, multiple reporters found themselves caught in the undertow across the nation.
In Los Angeles, Cerise Castle, a journalist then working for public radio station KCRW, was hit and injured by a rubber bullet fired by LAPD while covering Black Lives Matter protests in the tony Fairfax district. So was a reporter for Los Angeles Magazine. Police tear-gassed Chava Sanchez of KPCC and its sister site, LAist, at the same incident.
Several other journalists were detained or injured in the hours that followed.
That next day, KPCC reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was badly injured after being hit in the throat by a rubber bullet fired by police in nearby Long Beach during protests there. CT scans showed that Guzman-Lopez's fillings had been knocked from his teeth by the impact of his rubber bullets. he wrote. Long Beach's mayor apologized publicly.
In September, Josie Huang of KPCC and LAist was forcefully thrown to the ground by sheriff's deputies and arrested after covering a news conference on the deadly ambush of two deputies at a hospital in Compton, south of Los Angeles. Huang, who was wearing a KPCC press pass, taped deputies arresting a man just outside the news conference. She was charged with obstruction of justice on suspicion of interfering with a lawful arrest for filming the incident on her mobile phone.
A journalist for KABC-TV videotaped Huang's arrest and also captured deputies repeatedly stepping on her phone as it continued to record video, apparently in an attempt to destroy it. It took hours for KPCC news executives to succeed in tracking Huang down in custody.
The sheriff's department initially issued a public statement saying Huang had failed to identify herself. The KABC video disproved that. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva then dismissed the idea that deputies would have heard of KPCC — one of the nation's largest public radio stations — saying it is "not a household name."
The press club's Adam Rose says Huang's treatment by deputies inspired his drive to look more broadly at such incidents.
"It was deeply disturbing to see how she was treated," Rose tells NPR. "It was clearly unnecessary and it was clearly wrong. And so the journalism community here in Los Angeles at that moment started to speak up a lot more. But then we started doing more research, going back, and realized that this had really been a bigger issue for the past year."
Rose created a database of such events and says a striking number involved journalists of color, including Castle (who wrote in-depth pieces on the sheriff's department for Knock LA), Guzman-Lopez, Huang and others.
Echo Park was a capstone for a season of discontent on both sides, rather than a bolt from the blue, Rose says.
On March 25, 2021, beyond the arrests and detentions and zip-tying of other journalists, police shot Christian Monterrosa, a freelance photographer frequently hired by The Associated Press and The New York Times, and Luis Sinco, a veteran Los Angeles Times photojournalist, with what are called "less-lethal" rubber bullets. (For the record, Monterrosa is Latino, while Sinco is Filipino American.)
"For Los Angeles as a city, Echo Park became both this turning point for the relationship between police and journalists," says Monterrosa, "and also a reference point for how bad things have gotten in the city between police and journalists."
City council members, press advocates and media executives demanded answers for what had happened. The explanation could have been found in history books and, in the case of news executives, their own publications, news sites and broadcasts: The clashes with the press at Echo Park were built on decades of tensions and months of confrontation.
NPR's Marc Rivers contributed to this report.
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