Shield or target? San Jose police propose ways to ID journalists in crowds
Protesters clashed with San Jose police during the third day of protests Sunday over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. File photo by Luke Johnson.

San Jose police officials are recommending members of the press wear reflective vests or other identifying gear so they can be easily identified in crowds, an idea that drew mixed reviews from journalists.

During George Floyd protests, journalists from CNN to local news organizations such as this one were detained or mishandled by police despite identifying themselves as members of the press.

In a report presented to the City Council Sept. 15, San Jose police say their response could be better if journalists “are more easily distinguishable in a crowd.” Members of the press already can apply for and use the department’s press passes.

Some free-press advocates said this could make navigating covering large events such as protests more complicated.

“In San Jose, as in the rest of the Bay Area, we’ve seen police who either have no training in how to deal with reporters at protests or are consciously violating our constitutional rights,” said Lauren Smiley, co-chair of the Freedom of Information Committee at the Northern California Society for Professional Journalists. “A vest isn’t going to solve this; in fact, any police-sanctioned clothing may lead to more harassment at protests from those who could see us as extensions of law enforcement. It gives the police more power to determine who is a journalist or not.”

Gwen Larson, president of the National Association of Press Women, said she understands why some journalists might be uncomfortable with other identifying gear on.

“It is not that journalists covering protests are trying to hide themselves,” Larson said. “But we know that journalists have been targets on both sides of the issue.”

A freelance reporter for San José Spotlight was detained while covering the George Floyd protests in San Jose May 31. While following and reporting on a group of protesters, Luke Johnson stayed out past curfew that night, which was in place from 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Journalists were exempt from the curfew and Johnson verbally identified himself as a reporter to officers.

“In the midst of chaos, it’s hard for officers to identify who I am in real time, so I have empathy for them,” Johnson wrote after his encounter with police. “However, what bothered me most is how I wasn’t free to go after I clarified that I was a reporter.”

Johnson was detained next to Maggie Angst, a reporter for the Mercury News. Johnson said some officers were yelling at him to “go home,” while others ordered him to stay on the ground. He wasn’t sure what to do but he said he knew it was his right to be there.

Then, 20 minutes later, police left with no further instructions. Police Chief Eddie Garcia later told Johnson and Ramona Giwargis, the editor of this news organization, that Johnson should have been freed after he identified himself.

The police department’s report says journalists were indistinguishable from protestors with few exceptions and that some protesters falsely identified themselves as members of the press.

“At some point, there needs to be a fine line on who is who isn’t (media) because we can have cases where somebody one minute is throwing a rock at police and then the next minute, they’re raising their hand saying ‘I’m media’ or ‘I’m a legal observer,’” Acting Assistant Chief David Tindall told the council.“What is the balance?”

The department’s policy on news media clarifies that members of large publications aren’t the only ones allowed to cover demonstrations. “Small newspapers or magazines, freelancers and other citizens are also entitled to take notes or photographs,” the policy states.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said the policies could be good or bad for journalists depending on how the department trains officers and handles credential requests.

“Anything that will help journalists identify in a way that police do not arrest or harass or assault them is certainly something to be considered,” Osterreicher said. “One would hope that officers would get and have the training that they need to learn how to deal with the press. Whatever they issue, it’s not going to be a cloak of protection. If officers don’t follow procedures they’re instructed to follow, it won’t matter.”

The other consideration, Osterreicher said, is to whom the department issues the vests or other identifying equipment.

“The last thing we want is for law enforcement to be deciding who is and isn’t press, whether that’s through a credential or a vest process,” Osterreicher said.

Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News, expressed similar fears about the vests possibly making journalists targets. But she saw possible benefits, too.

“It also could help increase trust because it could allow journalists to look more formal as a group, therefore people may be more likely to talk to them if they see that they have a distinguished vest or something similar on,” Walsh said.

Osterreicher added awareness of the situation, for all members of the press, is a must when covering large gatherings.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” Osterreicher said. “Every protest, every incident, is going to be different. It’s a very dynamic, fluid situation. A protest that is peaceful could turn violent for whatever reason and people need to be aware of what’s going on.”

A full agenda for the Sept. 15 City Council meeting can be found here.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MadelynGReese

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