Report: Park Police use of force against journalists in 2020 violated policy
The Washington Post May 25, 2023
WASHINGTON — Two U.S. Park Police officers violated department policy when they used force against two journalists — pushing a videographer's camera and striking a reporter with a baton — during a crackdown on racial justice protesters outside the White House nearly three years ago, said the U.S. Department of the Interior Inspector General.
The journalists, who are unnamed in the inspector general's report, were working together in Lafayette Square to cover protests over the police killing of George Floyd for an Australian television network when the officers used force against them ahead of then-President Donald Trump's photo op on June 1, 2020, in front of St. John's church. Photos in the report published Wednesday match footage and testimony showing police striking Australian journalists Amelia Brace and Timothy Myers.
Eric Feder, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP who represents Myers and Brace, said that although a representative from the U.S. Department of the Interior Inspector General did not directly tell them this report was about their experience, "the details all match up completely."
"The report is plainly about what happened to them," Feder said. "We are pleased that the Inspector General ultimately recognized what was apparent to millions of people watching on live television — that the US Park Police used excessive force against members of the media exercising their constitutional rights to report the news. It's critical that law enforcement respects these important rights, even — indeed, especially — in 'heat of the moment' situations like the protests in Lafayette Square in June 2020."
On that day in Washington, D.C., hundreds of peaceful demonstrators found themselves the targets of law enforcement firing stun grenades, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. The protesters choked on the chemicals in the air, cried and shouted "don't shoot" as they ran away from officers on foot and horseback. Soon after, Trump walked through the park to visit the historic St. John's Church, where he posed for a photo op holding a Bible.
A 2021 report by the Interior Department's inspector general found that Park Police did not lead law enforcement officials into the crowd of protesters to clear the way for Trump's photo op. Instead, the report said, it was part of preparations to clear the protesters and erect a fence that began two days before the park clearing.
The latest inspector general report found that during the clearing, the two Park Police officers, who are also unnamed in the report and both had more than 10 years of experience, used more force than necessary against the journalists. The report refers to all subjects and witnesses with he/him pronouns to maintain anonymity.
"I appreciate the Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) thorough investigation and I am reviewing the full report," Park Police Chief Jessica Taylor said in a statement in response to a request for comment on the report. "Consistent with USPP policy, following the completion of the OIG report this matter was referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) to recommend any corrective actions, including disciplinary actions, if warranted."
Both journalists were on H Street near Vermont Avenue, before law enforcement began forcibly clearing protesters from the park. As the police line started moving forward, one of the officers noticed a person standing off to the side but did not realize this was a cameraman, according to the report.
"I perceived a threat from the person hiding behind the wall during a violent demonstration," the officer was quoted as saying in the report. The officer worried this person was trying to "ambush" them and used his shield to strike Myers in the stomach.
Then, the officer noticed this person was holding a camera. Although the officer told investigators that he or she did not strike Myers a second time, the report says video evidence shows the officer grabbed Myers' camera and pushed it.
Myers continued filming even after the shield strike and told investigators the officer "punched" the camera and "caused the camera to hit back into his head, making him see 'stars' and causing a 'bit of whiplash.'"
The report concludes that the initial shield strike into Myers' stomach complied with Park Police policy to use "only the minimum level of reasonable force necessary to control a situation," but the subsequent use of force by pushing his camera did not.
After another officer directed the two journalists to move in a specific direction, they followed commands and began running west on H Street. Then, a second Park Police officer hit Brace across the upper back, shoulders and backpack with his baton, according to the report and video of the incident. The strike damaged a camera lens inside the backpack, Brace said, according to the report.
The second Park Police officer told investigators he thought Brace had "assaulted a Federal officer and would be a fleeing felon" when he observed the two individuals running away. "I didn't know if [the Reporter] was coming to try to penetrate our lines and then assault another officer," the second officer told investigators.
Ultimately, the report said this baton strike did not comply with use of force policy because Brace was retreating, following officer orders, and was not a threat.
Brace testified before the House Natural Resources Committee after the incident that she and Myers were "assaulted" by officers who shot at them with rubber bullets and punched their camera as they repeatedly cried out "media."
"As a reporter, I have no interest in becoming the story. But over recent weeks, many of us have been left with no choice," she told lawmakers. "I have been shocked to see how many journalists have been attacked, beaten and detained, just for doing their job."