Denver’s public safety director Murphy Robinson held an online meeting with journalists on Friday to discuss how press can be ensured access and safety when covering events that involve the city’s law enforcement.
The meeting comes 25 days after a group led by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition sent a letter outlining the harassment during recent protests of at least a half-dozen journalists, some of whom were shot with less-lethal projectiles, including pepper balls, foam bullets and tear gas. In the letter, the group requested an investigation into police actions — which is now underway in the Office of the Independent Monitor — and a joint press conference for journalists to ask questions about law enforcement’s response.
"What you do is vital," he told members of the press. "This conversation's important to me, because as we have witnessed historic incidences … throughout the last couple months, it is important that we make sure that you can do your job, you can do your jobs well, and that you're safe doing so."
Reporters and editors shared examples of police violence against local reporters and highlighted a number of issues with law enforcement access, accountability and transparency, from failing to acknowledge media credentials and not responding to public information requests to restricting on-the-ground coverage and lacking adequate media training for officers.
Robinson pledged he was working on reform. Some of the ideas he proposed was creating a direct line to the command center; coming up with a better way to identify press; creating opportunities for journalists and officers to swap stories and better understand each other's perspectives; and joining a task force led by professional press organizations, which was suggested in CFOIC’s letter.
To reporters’ delight, Robinson also said he said he was working with Denver District Attorney Beth McCann’s office to speed up the process to release body camera footage from the protests.
“It’s vital to the community at this point, because if we don’t, another narrative is going to form,” he said.
In the June 1 letter, the group — which also included the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association and the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — said they "write to express our profound concern over recent reports from several journalists that law enforcement agents have specifically targeted them while they’ve covered the protests in downtown Denver over the death of George Floyd. We call upon the Denver Department of Public Safety, the Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado National Guard to thoroughly investigate these extremely serious allegations, and, if confirmed, to hold the peace officers involved accountable.”
The incidents included the following, according to the letter:
• Denver Post photojournalist Hyoung Chang was struck twice Thursday night with pepper balls that cut his arm and shattered the press credential hanging around his neck. Chang said a Denver police officer fired two pepper balls directly at him.
• Denver Post reporter Elise Schmelzer, who was wearing a reflective vest with the word “Press” on it, said officers on Thursday fired at least one pepper ball at her feet.
• On Friday, a Denver7 reporter wrote on Twitter that a station photographer was hit four times by “paint balls” fired by police.
• On Saturday, 9NEWS' Jeremy Jojola wrote on Twitter that state Capitol security officers fired “something” that hit his backpack “just after I went live with a large camera and light.” The reporter was wearing a 9NEWS hat. He found a yellow-and-black projectile at the spot where he was hit.
• On Saturday, Denverite reporter Esteban Hernandez wrote on Twitter: “Cops shoved me after I showed them my press credentials and forced me to inhale choking gas.”
• On Sunday, Denver Post reporter Alex Burness wrote on Twitter that he and Hernandez, who was wearing a neon press vest, were ordered by an officer to move “toward an epic amount of tear gas … Cop points weapon right at us. We were forced back into the chaos and we both took a ton of gas to the face.” They were both later hit with unidentified projectiles.
The letter stated that it is “inexcusable — and a violation of the journalists’ constitutional rights — for law enforcement officers to single them out for attack simply for doing their jobs in chronicling these events."
The media organizations also drew attention to the fact that Denver last September agreed to provide police officers with enhanced First Amendment training after officers illegally detained Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene. The department was forced to cough up $50,000 for its mistake.
Robinson said the First Amendment training is on track to be completed by the end of 2020. He also said that he would be setting up another conversation between public safety officials and members of the press in the coming weeks to continue the dialogue.
“I apologize for any bad experiences that you had through this event, but I think I would love for this to be the start of a conversation that goes on for a long time,” Robinson told roughly two-dozen reporters. “An open line to you all is important.”