LAPD Unconstitutionally Detains Journalists During Echo Park Protests

Image by Wally Skalij via Getty Images

By Meghan Imperio

LOS ANGELES — There have been a number of protests in Los Angeles in the past week as a result of the city planning to close the Echo Park Lake and clear the homeless encampment which has grown exponentially in the past year. These protests resulted in numerous arrests, among which multiple journalists covering the events were detained. 

Amid the ongoing pandemic, there has been a rise of homelessness across Los Angeles, especially at the Echo Park Lake. This led to concerns about safety and hygiene as well as criminal activity; however, according to an article published by The Hollywood Reporter, supporters of the encampment believe that the encampment provides the people who inhabit it with a sense of community when they have nowhere else to go.

Despite protests from supporters, the city gave orders to move as many unhoused people as possible and put a fence around the entire park and close it for renovations despite the CDC’s recommendation against the removal or dispersion of homeless encampments due to concerns for the spread of COVID-19. Many of the tents have been removed apart from the few number of people who chose to stay and exercise their right to the public space. 

On Thursday, March 25th, a large group of protesters were gathering peacefully when the police department declared the protest an unlawful assembly and began arresting the protesters that would not leave, which included multiple journalists and media personnel. 

Early the next morning, the Los Angeles Police Department released a statement on Twitter in regards to the detaining of several journalists. 

The press release states: “The declaration was announced at least 5 times in a period of at least 30 minutes. Additionally, after each declaration was voiced over loudspeakers, a request was made for each member of the media to identify themselves, remove themselves from the crowd, and walk to the pre-identified Crespo location.” 

“As members of the group were being individually detained, the officers learned that several credentialed and non-credentialed members of the media were part of the group. Members from the Department’s Media Relations Division were summoned to assist in identifying these individuals and they were released at the scene without being arrested.” 

“The Department requests that media personnel follow the lawful orders of officers at the scene of any demonstration which has been declared unlawful.”

After the crowd failed to disperse, officers began to detain individuals, including members of the media and independent lawyers monitoring police conduct and arrests. However, despite what the press release states, a Los Angeles Times reporter, James Queally, remained in LAPD custody until he was released after inquiries from the LA Times editors and attorney.  

In an article by the Los Angeles Times regarding the incident, they describe that Queally was detained while simply doing his job and was later released without charges. Shortly before Queally was detained, the LAPD released a statement that members of the press were subject to dispersal orders, and ordered to move to a media pen. 

However, many journalists, including Queally, believe that these media pens are deliberately set up to keep reporters away from the news and events that they’re covering, and that night, the area set up for the media was nowhere near the events that were taking place. These media pens set up by the police department restrict journalists’ constitutionally protected activities and freedom to report these events.

At the time that Queally was handcuffed, he was wearing an LAPD-issued press badge on a lanyard around his neck which identified him as a journalist. However, the arresting officers refused to acknowledge his repeated claims that he was with the LA Times. 

Queally stated: “I was pretty calm, and they weren’t violent or anything, but I was like, ‘Check the credentials, L.A. Times.’ No answer.” Despite his repeated requests, the officers continued to ignore the press badge and detain Queally for several hours. 

In a Fox11 interview, Queally describes that he was not upset that he was initially detained; however, when he was in police custody, handcuffed, displaying no threat and having his credentials on him, he should have been released, and yet he was not. 

Queally goes on to state: “I’m a cop’s kid. Policing is hard. I have a lot of respect and sympathy for officers. But the LAPD has a long history of problematic behavior with protests and crowd-control situations. This is something that desperately needs fixing.”

Like Queally, Kate Cagle, an anchor for Spectrum News 1 was also detained. Both journalists identified themselves and provided their credentials before they were detained, yet they were zip-tied by the officers anyways. 

These actions by the LAPD sparked an outrage against the department’s handling of journalists, as this is not the first time that journalists’ 1st Amendment rights have been violated by law enforcement at the protests and events which they are covering. 

These incidents have drawn attention to the fact that the LAPD has a history of poor crowd-control and handling peaceful protests as a whole. 

A statement by the ACLU suggests that these unlawful arrests are an attempt to keep the public from having access to the city’s actions.

In the press release, Hector Villagra, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, stated: “Taking militarized police action to displace people who are already displaced is cruel and does nothing to bolster public safety. Mass arrests of protesters, legal observers, and journalists will not keep the city’s brutal, ill-conceived actions from being known.” 

Many councilmen have added to the public support for the journalists who were detained that night and spoken out against the detaining of journalists and legal observers, stating that it is a disgrace, and that the LAPD needs to be better equipped or trained in identifying members of the media at news events and allow them the freedom to cover these events, especially without fear of being arrested.

Meghan Imperio is a writer for the LA Vanguard’s social justice desk. She is an English major at UCLA, originally from Glendale, CA.

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