A new report investigating conduct by St. Paul police during last summer’s Republican National Convention faults them over their handling of journalists. But the St. Paul Police Department’s response to the report raises questions over how the department will respond to journalists, including those from alternative and new media outlets, who cover similar future events.
More than 40 journalists were arrested this past summer in St. Paul while covering events related to the Republican Party convention. That’s the highest figure reported to date, and it is one of several new findings by an independent review commission. Co-chaired by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Luger, the commission’s 82-page report to the St. Paul City Council criticized the St. Paul Police Department for failing to heed journalists’ requests before the convention to develop a protocol for how they deal with reporters working during tense, and sometimes violent protest events.
The independent report also gave credence to journalists’ assertions that “media present during disturbances were treated no differently than those engaged in the disturbances.” The report further noted that “journalists were critical of the uneven and disparate treatment received by them from police, both when comparing different days [of the convention], and when comparing one journalist with another.”
The arrested journalists including two AP photographers and three journalists from the nationally syndicated radio and television program Democracy Now! “[U]niformed officers under the direction of your department tackled two AP photographers and body-slammed them to the crowd,” David Tomlin, associate general counsel for AP wrote at the time to St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington. “A policeman kicked one of them in the ribs. The other was arrested and needlessly detained for more than 10 hours.”
A Democracy Now! producer and videographer suffered a bloody nose after police slammed her into a parked car in an incident partly captured by her own video camera.
St. Paul Police Chief Harrington defended all his officers’ arrests of journalists on different days of the convention. “We recognize that media folks…are there doing the job,” he said, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. But, he went on, “the media isn’t exempt from [a] legal order and have to move [when so ordered by police].” But several journalists interviewed by CPJ said that arresting police gave them neither a warning nor an opportunity to move before being arrested. Other journalists arrested on a bridge over an Interstate before being arrested were explicitly ordered not to move, according to AP.
“I think there are lessons in the report and we are going to look into this,” Police Chief Harrington told AP.
St. Paul police spokesman Officer Pete Panos told CPJ that the department would be working with “major media” to develop protocols for handling journalists in the future. This would involve giving “background checks” and issuing credentials to journalists to make sure that they represent “legitimate news organizations.” When asked by CPJ what would make a news organization “legitimate,” Police spokesman Panos said that still needs to be determined.
Indeed it does. St. Paul police need to realize that alternative outlets like Democracy Now! may have a larger national audience than many radio and television stations that reach regional audiences in and around St. Paul. Moreover, from a press freedom standpoint, the politics of any particular media, whether covering Caracas, Beijing, or St. Paul, is never legitimate criteria for so-called legitimacy.