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Photojournalists sue LAPD, L.A. County sheriff over alleged abuses at protests

LAPD officer aims projectile
An LAPD officer aims a projectile weapon at photographer Nicholas Stern just before Stern says he was unjustly shot in the thigh.
(Nicholas Stern)

Two photojournalists have alleged in separate federal lawsuits this week that they were harassed and physically assaulted by law enforcement officers at protests in the Los Angeles area.

The lawsuits come amid heightened tensions between local police and the media after a year in which reporters and photographers have repeatedly alleged abuses by officers — including verbal harassment, physical assaults and baseless detentions and arrests — as they’ve sought to cover street demonstrations.

Nicholas Stern, a freelance news photographer, alleged he was repeatedly struck with a baton and then shot twice with projectiles by Los Angeles police officers during mass protests against police brutality in the Fairfax district on May 30.

Stern alleged one of the shots, to his thigh, came after he had used his media credentials to get onto a sidewalk and out of officers’ way — behind the officers’ skirmish line. He claimed he was lifting his credentials up when the officer opened fire anyway.

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Stern alleged the shot left him with severe pain, a large bruise and a limp. He also alleged he was struck forcefully with a baton in the ribs, which left him with pain for two weeks, and was grazed by a second projectile in the knee.

Stern said he left the protest after seeing a fellow journalist get “shoved to the ground by a LAPD officer for no reason” and fearing that he would targeted again by officers if he stayed.

Two more reviews have found glaring problems with the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of last summer’s mass protests against police brutality.

Stern’s lawsuit claims LAPD officers were “given the green light to use less lethal projectiles to thwart free speech and freedom of the press,” and that LAPD officers specifically targeted journalists by shooting projectiles “directly at them without justification, provocation, or warning.”

He is suing the city of Los Angeles, LAPD Chief Michel Moore and multiple individual officers.

The department said Stern’s claims are being investigated, but declined to comment on the litigation. It has previously denied targeting journalists at demonstrations and lauded individual officers for responding bravely during the volatile Fairfax demonstration.

The department also has acknowledged shortcomings in its response to the spring protests, and admitted insufficient training on projectile weapons for some officers who were armed with them.

The department is being sued by a raft of protesters alleging physical abuses with projectile weapons, and a federal judge is considering a request for an injunction on the weapons as part of a class-action claim against the LAPD brought by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and other advocacy groups and demonstrators.

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In a separate lawsuit also filed this week, Nasser Baker, a photojournalist for OnScene.TV, alleges he was “physically pushed, struck, and threatened” by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies while videotaping interactions between deputies and protesters outside of the St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood on Sept. 12, as two deputies who had been shot in a separate incident were treated inside.

Baker alleged he shouted “I am media! I am media!” during the assault as another deputy said, “Get out of here or I’ll break your f—ing camera!”

Baker alleged the deputies acted “with the objective of stifling press coverage” of the events, to “suppress and chill free speech” and to prevent the dissemination of video showing the department’s use of excessive and violent force on peaceful protesters.

He alleged deputies never issued a dispersal order, instead attacking protesters and media in an “egotistical and scaremongering” way that was “completely rogue and baseless.”

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Baker is suing L.A. County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and multiple deputies.

Dept. Trina Schrader, a sheriff’s spokeswoman, said department officials were unfamiliar with the lawsuit, but “respect the right of all to peacefully demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights” and “do not condone harassment of any type.”

The reporter, Josie Huang, of KPCC and LAist, was taken into custody outside St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, where she was covering protests.

Baker is not the first reporter to complain about deputies’ actions that night. KPCC reporter Josie Huang was slammed to the ground by deputies and accused of interfering with an arrest as she covered the event, and was arrested. That incident, caught on video, drew widespread condemnation from defenders of the media and other journalists, and prosecutors declined to pursue the charges against Huang — determining that she was in public space and did not appear to be intentionally interfering.

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Both Stern and Baker allege their constitutional and civil rights were violated, and claim assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Both are seeking unspecified damages.

Their claims, if they go to court, could put an even greater spotlight on how L.A.-area law enforcement agencies handle journalists at protests — which has been a hot button issue in recent months.

In March, media advocates condemned the LAPD’s treatment of journalists at a protest over the clearing of a homeless encampment in Echo Park, after several journalists were detained — including Times reporter James Queally — and others were arrested as they sought to cover a clash where LAPD officers surrounded demonstrators and began conducting mass arrests.

Journalists accused the LAPD of issuing confusing directives and attempting to force journalists into a designated observation area that would not have afforded a clear view of the protest or the mass arrests that were occurring. And media watchers expressed concern that, while reporters from prominent publications were released, others from less-established outlets were arrested and booked.

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Last month, the Media Guild of the West released a statement specifically calling on Moore, Villanueva and other Southern California law enforcement leaders and elected officials to immediately stop arresting and detaining journalists in the field and ensure they have access to major events.

The ACLU of Southern California also sent a letter to Southern California law enforcement agencies condemning their recent treatment of journalists and rejecting the notion that journalists should be subject to dispersal orders.


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