LA Police Back in Court Over Manhandling of News Reporters
LOS ANGELES (CN) - The Los Angeles police method of manhandling news reporters during demonstrations has once again brought the city into court to defend the actions of its police force.
A reporter for a local news agency in Los Angeles, City News Service, has filed suit over an incident in late 2011 where he was wrestled to the ground by policemen and dragged away after he showed his press credentials.
Police representatives later attempted to explain the incident by saying the reporter was drunk and belligerent, an explanation at odds with a video of the incident.
The police actions towards a reporter and the subsequent lawsuit reflect a similar series of events in 2007 when Los Angeles police swept through the remnants of a May Day demonstration in MacArthur Park swinging their batons with full force against reporters and camera operators.
Those actions were condemned the following day by then police chief William Bratton and later resulted in a $1.7 million verdict against the city in favor of a camerawoman.
However, Bratton left his job as police chief soon thereafter and, based on the video evidence and the allegations in court, the police force resumed the tactic of manhandling credentialed reporters during the Occupy demonstration in 2011.
The complaint filed late last month by reporter Calvin Milam says he showed his credentials, tried to leave the demonstration area, was taken down to the ground by three policemen, dragged to a police vehicle and then left bound in handcuffs, tightened sufficiently to slash his wrists.
He said later that he was held in handcuffs for six hours before he was released. No charges were filed.
"The only reason he wasn't prosecuted was because we located video which completely puts lie to what the cops said," said Los Angeles lawyer Mark Geragos who represents Milam. "It's astonishing to see that video and then see what was alleged: that he didn't identify himself, show press credentials and that he was resisting."
Milam says he was at an Occupy L.A. rally on Nov. 30, 2011, shortly after midnight, when police tried to disband protesters at City Hall South.
"At some point, the Los Angeles police officers, in full riot gear, began to restrict the egress of those exercising their First Amendment rights and blocked access to leave the premises," the complaint states.
The Los Angeles police tactic of penning in demonstrators and journalists before moving in to make arrests was used in answer to demonstrations during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles where parade routes were lined with police who in one observed instance had taped over the numbers on their badges before going into action.
While a rally was underway in front of police headquarters, during that sequence of events in 2000, Los Angeles police officers controlled the entrances to the area, including those in City Hall plaza directly across the street, allowing demonstrators into the area but refusing to allow anyone to leave, before making arrests.
The same tactic was used during the Occupy rally last year, according to the most recent complaint.
"As tension mounted by the Los Angeles police officers, plaintiff attempted to exit the blocked area," said the complaint. "As he identified himself as a member of the press, and displayed his press identification, the police officers violently slammed plaintiff to the ground, handcuffed him so tightly as to cause slashes to his wrists, and dragged him to the police vehicle."
A total of 300 demonstrators were arrested that night.
Reporter Milam was charged by policeman Victor Johnson with unlawful assembly, but no unlawful assembly had been declared, according to the complaint, and the charges were quickly dropped by the city.
The litigation is at a very early stage and the city has not yet answered.
In the trial over the beating of reporters during the 2007 May Day rally on immigration policy, Chief Bratton and Deputy Chief Michael Hillman testified as plaintiff witnesses, criticizing the police charge that sent demonstrators and reporters flying.
That action was brought by three women, a TV reporter, a TV camera woman and a radio reporter. Closing arguments were held in the week before the Fourth of July. Browne Greene, a prominent Los Angeles trial lawyer, showed the jury a video clip that showed a policeman thrusting his baton into a man who was holding an American flag.
"They're looking for people to hit," he said. "This is the reason why Chief Hillman and Bratton were ashamed." Greene said.
During the trial, a Los Angeles policeman testified that he felt threatened by a reporter's microphone before he hit her hard enough to send into a full turn in mid-air, with her cellphone flying.
The city's lawyer, Deputy City Attorney Jessica Brown, argued in short that the reporters asked for it. "These three plaintiffs took a risk on their own," she said.
The jury returned a verdict of $1.7 million for the camerawoman who was knocked to the ground after her camera was knocked from her shoulder, plus a minor amount for the radio reporter who was hit, and nothing for the Hispanic female reporter vaulted into the air by the policeman concerned over her microphone.
In the more recent incident involving the City News Service reporter, a video posted online shows him presenting press credentials to police and then crossing a police line. The police wrestle him to the ground before police wearing hazmat suits drag him away.
Before the video surfaced, police told an L.A. Weekly reporter that Milam was "drunk and belligerent" and did not identify himself as a reporter, a statement clearly contradicted by the video evidence that shows Milam holding his credentials up in front of the policemen before attempting to leave the area.
Milam referred an inquiry for comment to his lawyer Geragos.
"He is an old school journalist who believes that if you're covering a story," said Geragos, "it's a good idea to actually be at the event."