A national coalition of media organizations today joins forces to condemn a new media policy from the Sacramento Police Department. The policy, produced by the Department in the wake of the wrongful detention of working journalists reporting on a protest over the death of Stephon Clark, does nothing to prevent the recurrence of such detentions and does not even commit to compliance with all transparency and access laws that already govern law enforcement. In contrast, a draft that the media organizations proposed to the police department during negotiations last year afforded greater protection to journalists covering demonstrations: it spelled out an exemption for media representatives when officers close a disaster area, and clarified legal protections for journalists’ newsgathering materials.
That the new Sacramento policy shields police from public scrutiny is especially disappointing considering that the undersigned groups spent months working with Department officials to craft a policy that would help foster greater public trust in the Department. Instead, Sacramento PD officials have decided to go the opposite direction, ignoring most of our suggestions while publishing a media policy that puts Sacramento behind its counterparts in San Francisco and Oakland.
On March 4, 2019, Sacramento police detained journalists Dale Kasler, Scott Radd and William Coburn while they were reporting on a citizens’ protest over the fatal shooting by officers of Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man. The detention of the journalists was without cause and could have been avoided by a crowd-control policy that made clear that journalists should not be detained for doing their jobs.
Following the unnecessary detentions, media organizations called on Police Chief Daniel Hahn to implement a policy. After months of waiting, we were told in January that our feedback and suggestions would be taken into consideration. We were dismayed to see last month that this was not the case.
“After months of working with the Sacramento Police Department to improve police-press relations, we are deeply disappointed in their recently released media policy,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). “Despite our best efforts and proposals on a number of critical First Amendment issues, the department chose to ignore them.”
SPD Chief Hahn met with representatives from SPJ NorCal, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists last summer, promising to fix holes in the Department’s policy, which lacked procedures for interacting with members of the media during a protest. Yet, as written, the new policy:
- threatens to obstruct coverage of civil rights demonstrations by emphasizing that journalists may be arrested for failing to obey orders to disperse, while failing to provide necessary guidance about when such dispersal orders are authorized;
- fails to adequately describe the right of media access to disaster areas in California Penal Code section 409.5;
- fails to educate officers on the legal protections for journalists’ work product, such as recordings, notes, and videos;
- does not clearly explain what information is subject to release under the California Public Records Act (CPRA);
- does not affirm that the Department will strictly follow all applicable transparency laws, such as the CPRA, SB 1421, and Proposition 59; and
- puts officers in the untenable position of having to evaluate and report “unethical or unprofessional conduct by members of the media,” even though officers are ill-equipped to render judgment about the professional standards of journalism.
“Policies that do not give officers proper guidance on constitutional and statutory access rights, and do not establish clear standards for officers to follow, invite conflict and damage the relationship between the media and the police,” said Christine Peek, co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, NorCal Chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee. “That creates an unsafe situation for everyone.”
“Rather than giving clear guidance on letting reporters do their jobs, this policy instead urges officers to police the reporters: to be looking for so-called ‘unethical’ ones,” says Lauren Smiley, co-chair of NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee. “That reinforces a mindset that journalists are somehow a problem and in need of police monitoring, an especially dangerous idea given police attacks on reporters at recent Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.”
“The Sacramento Police Department’s new media policy will perpetuate rather than alleviate the challenges faced by journalists covering demonstrations in the city,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The press must be able to safely and freely cover demonstrations and protests without fear of arrest. We urge Police Chief Daniel Hahn to immediately revise his department’s new policy to align with our draft guidance.”
The undersigned media organizations have made their suggested policy draft available here. Together, they call on Sacramento elected officials to take the steps necessary to require that SPD revise its new policy to correct these defects and restore the community’s trust.
Contact: SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee email@example.com