The Minnesota Daily filed a complaint Tuesday with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.
The complaint claimed officers infringed on Daily journalists’ First Amendment rights during the April 7 riot following the Gophers NCAA hockey championship, said Daily Editor in Chief Mike Wereschagin.
“We feel what happened to the photographers and reporters was wrong and this is the sort of thing police should not do,” he said.
According to written statements in the complaint, a photographer was pushed to the ground from behind and kicked in the back. When a reporter went to help the photographer, she was sprayed directly in the face with chemical irritant. Two other photographers were sprayed in the face with chemical irritant and hit repeatedly with a riot stick.
Two photographers had press passes displayed in the middle of their chests, and the others told police officers they were members of the press, according to the complaint.
“The Minnesota Daily strongly objects to what we feel was the specific and systematic targeting of members of the press by the Minneapolis Police Department,” according to the complaint.
Initially, Wereschagin said, Internal Affairs told him only individual journalists could file a complaint. After talking with the Daily’s lawyer, Wereschagin and Daily President Ben Exley decided to file a complaint on behalf of the entire organization.
The Daily is concerned Minneapolis police might have purposely tried to prevent Daily staff from documenting the events, Wereschagin said.
“I’m hoping that it was not intentional, that it was not a concerted effort to stop this news from
becoming public,” he said.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Medaria Arradondo said police Chief Robert Olson is pleased the Daily filed a complaint with Internal Affairs.
“He’s glad that the process and the system of making a formal complaint is working,” Arradondo said.
The Daily also presented a copy of the complaint to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office.
“He was present at the meeting, and I think he ought to know where it’s at,” Wereschagin said.
Wereschagin met with Rybak, Olson and City Council member Paul Zerby, who represents the University area, April 10 to discuss police treatment of journalists during the riot.
Rybak could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Mark Osland said it will take Internal Affairs at least one month to investigate the complaint.
The department can’t comment about the case until the investigation is complete, he said.
An officer will take statements from complaining parties, and then a lieutenant will review the statements to determine if a violation occurred rather than a misunderstanding of police procedure. If a violation might have occurred, the case is passed on to a sergeant, who investigates the incident.
When the investigation is complete, the case goes to a review panel to examine the evidence and determine if the officer or officers violated the police code of conduct. The panel also decides the proper discipline for the offending officer or officers, which must be approved by the police chief.
Punishment can range from a written warning to termination, depending on the severity of the incident.
Last year, Internal Affairs investigated nearly 40 cases, Osland said. But because the Civilian Review Authority – an independent review board which examined citizens’ complaints against police – is no longer taking cases, Internal Affairs’ caseload has increased, he said.
Jane Kirtley, University media ethics and law professor, said
journalists don’t have special privilege under the law to protect them from arrest during a riot. Journalists also don’t have special access to accident scenes in Minnesota.
But journalists can’t be arrested for being at a crime scene and documenting it, she said.
“That could raise a First Amendment concern,” Kirtley said.
Many journalists and police departments establish a relationship where reporters are allowed greater access to crime scenes, but there is nothing to ensure that under the law, she said.
“Police have no obligation to let journalists get in the way,” Kirtley said.
Kirtley said she recommends officers and journalists discuss how volatile situations should be covered in advance so conflicts don’t arise on the scene of a crime.
Kirtley is not a member of the Minnesota Bar.
Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]