Department of Safety settles with journalists

MGN

Law enforcement cannot arrest or interfere with journalists unless they’re committing a crime

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, settled a lawsuit last Tuesday stemming from the Minnesota State Patrol’s treatment of the press during the days of unrest following George Floyd’s murder and Daunte Wright’s killing.

The settlement extends for six years an injunction that prohibits state troopers from dispersing, detaining, arresting, and assaulting journalists unless they committed a crime, and at that point, a supervisor would need to be notified immediately. They are also not allowed to seize equipment or tell journalists what they can and cannot photograph. Any violation of this settlement requires an internal investigation and immediate notification of a trooper’s superior, and possibly notice to the Peace Officers Standards and Training board if they pass a model policy requiring it.

The lawsuit was filed by several independent journalists who were assaulted by officers while covering periods of unrest. At least six journalists were briefly trapped in an alcove and assaulted by state troopers on Nicollet Avenue between 31st Street and 32nd Street as they tried to escape their deployment of tear gas shortly after a curfew. Media representatives were exempt from that curfew, which went into effect shortly after 8 p.m. on May 30, 2020.

Katie Nelson, a freelancer who grew up in Minneapolis and spends time in Mexico City, was one of those who were trapped, along with her assistants. “The moment that I got out, and I got [my assistant] Courtney out, State Patrol came in and started shooting tear gas at press,” said Nelson. “I had ongoing eye inflammation for eight months. My eyes were chronically red and they hurt; it’s hard to see out of them. And there was some damage to them. And then I started having stress-related seizures.”

Chris Juhn Police shooting tear gas at Brooklyn Center protest following the killing of Daunte Wright

Ed Ou, another freelancer who was trapped with Nelson, was shot at with a concussion grenade, resulting in four stitches and a permanent scar on his forehead. He did not expect police to respond the way they did.

“I always knew that there are some red lines that don’t get crossed, that if you stay out of the police’s way, if you identify yourself as a journalist, you shouldn’t be arrested, and people shouldn’t target you,” Ou said. “We didn’t really make any mistakes, we were just simply targeted.”

The state will also pay $825,000 to the named parties, which will also cover attorney’s fees.

State troopers must also have body cameras by this June. Each individual trooper will also need to be readily identifiable by name, badge number, and agency from twenty feet away, and the state patrol must keep records of everyone deployed to handle demonstrations and unrest. They will also need to have available an officer whose sole role is to interface with the media during demonstrations and unrest.

Troopers will also receive training on the First Amendment, as well as on crowd control and data retention. The State Patrol came under fire last September when a major testified that texts and e-mails related to the George Floyd unrest were deleted.

Journalists will also have to prominently identify themselves, which could include wearing press credentials when they cover protests or unrest. Although journalists do not have to obviously appear as one, the state cannot be held liable if they assault someone whom they only later find out is a journalist.

Although Nelson and Ou displayed credentials and possessed equipment identifying themselves as journalists, they nonetheless were assaulted. Despite that, Nelson hopes the settlement will mean the police will get their act together. “I sincerely hope that we can trust that law enforcement will uphold their end of the bargain. But I think this also shows that we, as journalists, have power to say, if you’re not going to follow the law, there will be consequences,” said Nelson.

The DPS also contracted with 21CP Solutions, led by former police department leaders from across the nation, days after Daunte Wright was killed, to review how they handled press and recommend how they could do better. Moving forward, they will develop a non-mandatory system to credential journalists, which does not exist today in Minnesota but does in cities like New York and San Francisco.

A separate lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis and Minneapolis police leadership involving journalist Linda Tirado, whose eye was shot out with a 40-millimeter round by a Minneapolis police officer, is ongoing, as are two additional lawsuits filed by protesters.