Oakland Mayor Jean Quan vowed to help improve the relationship between city police and journalists during a recent meeting with news gatherers and professional organizations.
The meeting, held in late February at Oakland City Hall, was called in an effort to discuss incidents of working reporters and photographers being detained and in some cases arrested by Oakland Police Department officers during several Occupy Oakland protests in recent months.
“I think we have OK policies, but can there be improvements?” Quan asked.
The police department’s policy currently states that “Even after a dispersal order has been given, clearly identified media shall be permitted to carry out their professional duties in any area where arrests are being made unless their presence would unduly interfere with the enforcement action.”
Sara Steffens, a CWA District 9 staff representative, said the flaw lies not with the police department’s policy, but with its enforcement.
Our concern is that our members should be able to be out there working and not having to spend the night in jail. We don’t have a problem with the policy, but what’s happening in the heat of the moment.
Some of the worst incidents occurred last fall, and included police hassling Oakland Tribune photographer Ray Chavez, ripping the flash from his camera and throwing it to the ground. Comics journalist and Guild freelance member Susie Cagle endured a 15-hour stint in jail after being arrested while covering Occupy Oakland in November, despite her having identified herself as a working journalist.
Cagle also was among at least six journalists, including credentialed media from the San Francisco Chronicle, KGO radio news and Mother Jones magazine, detained and plastic-shackled while covering the Occupy Oakland rally in late January.
Officers ignored reporters presenting their press credentials – some of them even issued by the Oakland and San Francisco police departments – and reprimanded them for not following dispersal orders, according to a letter to the city from Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild, and other press leaders.
The letter states
Freedom of the press is key to our democracy and must be vigorously defended. Arrests of journalists and other police interference with reporters and photographers cannot be tolerated.
The coalition representing journalists included Steffens, Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter President Liz Enochs, First Amendment attorney Geoff King and three working journalists. I also was there on behalf of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild.
During the meeting, Sgt. Christopher Bolton, chief of staff for the police chief, said that he reached out to journalists he knew were detained during the January Occupy Oakland protests, but the department needs to be made aware of all other allegations of misconduct so that additional investigations can be launched.
Quan said the “fake media around Occupy” are hampering the city’s ability to discern real media from personal bloggers and others, but she also questioned Bolton repeatedly about officers’ reaction to credentialed media during protests.
Bolton said the incidents the department is aware of are being investigated and he’s still awaiting the findings.
Protestors outnumbered officers during the chaotic melee, he said.
I believe there were most likely mistakes made. When I knew there were incidents, I called editors' desks, I sent someone out to pick up Gavin Aronsen (of Mother Jones), I spoke personally with people. My point on that is we had an existing policy and an operations briefing before each operation that clearly said what policy was and what expectations were of our officers. We’re accountable for those failures.
Now, the police department’s policy regarding Occupy and media coverage has been bolstered, Bolton added. A commander, public information officer or Bolton himself will be dispatched if there’s any disagreement or grievance made between the police and working media.
The department also has instituted a temporary press pass policy. Members of the working media who either lack credentials or want the additional press badge now can check out a daily press pass from the Oakland PD.
Commanders also have been trained regarding the department’s media policy, Bolton said, and directives also have been e-mailed to them.
Bolton said they’re also learning lessons from the less contentious Occupy actions, and that pool camera access may be pursued more in the future.
“But that’s impeding on our coverage,” said Jane Tyska, an Oakland Tribune photojournalist who attended the meeting.
Steffens, of CWA District 9, said police escorts and pool access could have a chilling effect on news coverage. It’s a good addition, along with the temporary Oakland PD press pass, but it isn’t all that’s needed.
According to Steffens:
We’d love to see a clear directive go out that whatever happens between an officer and journalist, please don’t interfere with our equipment.
Quan questioned whether it was city officers or other agency officers called in as mutual aid that detained or arrested journalists during the January protest. That will be investigated, she said.
Quan also committed to investigating the police department’s policy regarding interfering with journalists’ property, better communicating Oakland PD’s media policy to mutual aid agencies and talking to the police chief about including Guild and SPJ officials and members as a panel during officer training.
This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Valley Labor Bulletin.