Incident adds fire to media/police conflict

It was to be a peaceful May Day workers' and immigrants' rally in LA's MacArthur Park. Instead, the LA Police Department's Metro Division is facing ever-increasing criticism for its caught-on-video excessive use of force.

It was to be a peaceful May Day workers' and immigrants' rally in LA's MacArthur Park. Instead, the LA Police Department's Metro Division is facing ever-increasing criticism for its caught-on-video excessive use of force.

And while law enforcement officers and injured civilians are never a winning combination, the mix becomes even more complicated when credentialed members of the media are among the wounded.

According to video footage and firsthand reports, riot gear-clad police officers responded to an attack of plastic bottles and other debris by swinging batons, spraying tear gas, and firing nearly 150 "less-than-lethal" rounds at the crowd of mostly nonviolent protesters. At least 10 people were injured, including seven credentialed journalists.

It's a media/departmental relationship strain the city doesn't need, conjuring images of a similar incident surrounding the 2000 Democratic National Convention. They are images LA's chief of police William Bratton has worked hard to dispel, but that are now back on every journalist's radar.

In an open letter to Bratton from the board of directors of the Los Angeles Press Club, for example, the organization expressed its "concern about police officers' attacks on news reporters and photographers" - "not an isolated instance" - and urged him to "take extra steps to ensure these deplorable actions against the press do not reoccur."

"It happened in a way that it looked so very awful on video," LA Press Club president Anthea Raymond told PRWeek. But "Bratton seems to want to work with the media to make sure this does not happen again," she notes. "It will certainly be very interesting to see how they're going to proceed going forward."

That "going forward" phase has already begun, its immediacy in part prompted by the media's fervent response. At least four investigations are being conducted of the MacArthur Park melee, including two internal LAPD inquiries, a Police Commission probe, and an FBI investigation.

In addition, Bratton has reassigned two ranking command officers and formed an exploratory task force comprising city council members and journalism groups, including the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio and Television News Association.

"This department that has a culture of using excessive force... that culture has got to change," says Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Though Bratton has made some initial headway, Eliasberg says, "changing a department like this is like changing the rudder of a moving ocean liner."

To achieve real change within the LAPD, he adds, the press must continue to be aggressive in its questioning and stay on top of the investigation.

But the public's perception of the news media isn't so good, either, adds Hugh Munn, PR faculty member at the University of South Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications and a crisis communications specialist who works with police academies and organizations nationwide.

Regarding the MacArthur Park incident, Munn says, "you can't un-ring the bell." What can be done, he explains, is to begin to help media and law enforcement professionals re-evaluate the expectations they have of each other.

In most situations, Munn says, "you're not going to have the lion lying down with the lamb." As the media try to gain information and law enforcement officials try to control investigations, often the two parties will come into conflict. While there's always that potential, he says, both sides need to learn to respect each other's rights.

Police "just exclude the media because [they] don't want them there," he says. "But open and outright conflict isn't going to solve the problem... the media are always going to be around; you just have to accept that as a fact."

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