Police officers face difficult, stressful and even life-threatening situations all the time, everything from domestic disputes to armed robberies to street demonstrations. And we have no doubt that most police go to work each day intending to do the job correctly and honorably. But to do so, they need not only the support of their department’s leadership, but also the proper training to face each day’s challenges.
That training seems to have failed some members of the Bridgeport Police Department during a public demonstration last Thursday, when Tara O’Neill, a reporter for the Connecticut Post, part of Hearst Connecticut Media, was detained, patted down, handcuffed, put into a squad car, taken down to the station house and relieved of her belongings, ready to be booked. Although she was later “un-arrested” and released, a statement from City Hall noted that she was not wearing “clearly-visible identifying markers” — other than her prominently displayed press credentials. O’Neill said she also told the officer who detained her that she was a member of the press. Since journalists generally don’t wear uniforms, we would argue that O’Neill’s press credentials should have been enough to identify her as a neutral figure, not a participant in the incident.
O’Neill had been covering the Bridgeport police for more than two years, most notably since the killing by police of 15-year-old Jayson Negron on May 9, 2017. Thursday’s demonstration marked the second anniversary of that killing, which had angered many in the community. Police ordered the crowd to clear the street, and then advanced after one or two bottles or other objects were thrown in their direction. Certainly a demonstration can’t be considered entirely “peaceful” if anything that could cause injury is being thrown at the police.
But when it comes to the detention of the reporter, two other factors bear mentioning:
First, O’Neill was standing on the sidewalk and filming the action with her phone, something that any citizen has a right to do as long as they don’t hamper the police in doing their job. But some police agencies seem to ignore that fact, and have been known to confiscate cameras or phones, or arrest peaceful observers for recording what happens. We are not claiming a special right for journalists here; rather, we are concerned that the public may not be aware of their rights when they are behaving peacefully in a public place.
Second, given that this reporter had been covering the Bridgeport police for some time — doing her job by reporting news that has sometimes cast the department in a bad light — it is only reasonable to wonder whether she was recognized and detained for just that reason. This is not an accusation, but a reasonable question.
In either case, it would be chilling to think that sometimes police departments may act to keep what they consider bad news away from the public by intimidating or arresting the messenger, be that person a reporter, a news photographer, or John Q. Public.
For these reasons, we endorse what the Connecticut Post said in an editorial on Sunday:
“There is no reason to arrest a journalist in the course of doing her job. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution to ensure that the people will always know what their government is doing in their name.”
We also endorse this statement from the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union:
“We rely on police to uphold public safety, but we also entrust police with extraordinary authority, including the powers to use deadly force and to decide who gets stopped, searched, arrested, and funneled into the criminal justice system. This must be balanced by accountability and transparency.”
The Bridgeport Police Department should take another look at its training policies and should welcome an investigation — a transparent investigation — into what happened Thursday.