Minnesota police pledge not to harass journalists at protests

Outcry after Minnesota police detain, pepper-spray journalists covering protests over the killing of Daunte Wright.

Demonstrators chant as they march towards the Brooklyn Center Police Department during a protest against the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota [John Minchillo/ AP]

The Minnesota State Patrol (MSP) has promised not to detain, threaten or rough up journalists covering protests, after several reporters accused officers of harassing and assaulting them during demonstrations in the US city of Minneapolis over the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man.

In a statement on Saturday, the MSP also agreed to stop photographing “journalists or their credentials” and said they will no longer order reporters where they can position themselves to cover the demonstrations.

The pledge came after media organisations criticised state police and officers from eight other law-enforcement agencies in the joint force known as Operation Safety Net for how they treated journalists at protests in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center on Friday.

Police impeded the work of journalists even after a judge in the United States issued a temporary restraining order that forbade them from arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists.

USA Today videographer Jasper Colt tweeted that he and other reporters were forced to lie on their stomach on Friday evening while police photographed them and their credentials before letting them leave.

“We condemn the actions of the police in Brooklyn Center in the strongest possible terms,” USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth said in an email to The Associated Press news agency. “Requiring journalists to lie prone on the ground and photographing their credentials are purposeful intimidation tactics.”

‘Extremely upset’

Freelance photographer Tim Evans told AP that officers surrounded protesters after a 10pm curfew passed. They charged into the crowd and started pepper-spraying and tackling people, he said.

Evans said one officer punched him in the face and tore off his credentials, forced him onto his stomach and pressed a knee into his back.

“I was yelling ‘press.’ He said he didn’t care,” Evans said.

Evans said another officer came over and smashed his head into the ground. He was zip-tied before a third officer freed him and let him leave.

“I’m extremely upset,” Evans said. “I felt like they were targeting the press in general. I’m out there doing what I’m doing because I have such strong convictions about the importance of this work.”

Other journalists posted photos and videos online showing police detaining them while checking their credentials, and in at least one case spraying chemical irritants.

“We are extremely troubled by how the media is being treated and have repeatedly shared those concerns with the authorities,” said Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said the behaviour of some officers “went beyond unlawful detention to include outright retaliatory assault” against journalists, whose work to inform the public is protected against government interference by the US Constitution.

‘Better path forward’

The events led several media organisations to ask Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to intervene.

“I convened a meeting today with media and law enforcement to determine a better path forward to protect the journalists covering civil unrest,” Walz said on Twitter on Saturday.

Following the meeting, the MSP said it will “not photograph journalists or their credentials”.

“In addition, MSP will no longer include messaging at the scene advising media where they can go to safely cover events. While journalists have been detained and released during enforcement actions after providing credentials, no journalists have been arrested,” the statement said.

It also said journalists would be exempt from general dispersal orders issued to demonstrators, and that state police were banned from using chemical spray against the press.

The protests erupted after Wright was killed during a traffic stop on Sunday in Brooklyn Center. Former officer Kimberly Potter, who turned in her badge on Tuesday, has been charged with manslaughter.

Demonstrators have gathered outside the Brooklyn Center police station every night since the shooting, frequently throwing water bottles and other objects at police behind a protective fence.

Officers have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles at times, and have usually marched in lines to clear the area after curfew or after some protesters approached or sought to damage the fence.

Their tactics have drawn criticism from Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott, who is Black, and other elected officials around the Twin Cities.

Wright’s death came with Minneapolis already on edge as the trial of former policeman Derek Chauvin nears an end, with closing arguments scheduled for Monday. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder for his part in the deadly arrest last May of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies