U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Denver police train a less-lethal rifle at Colorado Public Radio reporter

Incident Details

May 31, 2020

Esteban Hernandez, a reporter for Denverite and Colorado Public Radio, and another journalist were aimed at with a crowd-control weapon by law enforcement while covering protests in Denver, Colorado, on the evening of May 31, 2020.

The protests were sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for eight minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Hernandez ran into Denver Post reporter Alex Burness near the state capitol building, Burness told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The lights around the capitol were off, creating an “uneasy” atmosphere, Burness said. A large crowd of protesters had amassed on the north side of the building. Police moved toward protesters, firing tear gas. Burness and Hernandez decided to leave the area, heading away from the tear gas toward the capitol’s south side.

There, they encountered a line of officers standing across a two-lane street. Burness saw an opening that would have allowed them to leave the area without crossing the police line. Burness said both journalists loudly identified themselves as members of the press and were wearing press credentials, and Hernandez wore a neon yellow vest with ‘PRESS’ written on it in large letters.

Burness said one of the officers told them to turn back the other way, where the tear gas was coming from. Burness and Hernandez continued to shout “Press! Press! Press!” to get the officers to allow them to pass through the open area, but police refused. In a show of force, one lifted what Burness described as a rifle used to shoot less-lethal projectiles, and pointed it directly at the journalists. Burness said he has no doubt the officers knew they were members of the press, calling the incident “a flagrant disregard for our press rights.”

The two retreated back towards the capitol lawn, where they were engulfed in a cloud of tear gas. Burness, wearing ski goggles and an N95 mask, said he couldn’t see at more than five percent for several minutes. “It was very intense, extremely unpleasant, and crucially, totally unnecessary,” he said. Both Hernandez and Burness tweeted about the incident. Reached via direct message on Twitter, Hernandez declined to comment.

Multiple law enforcement agencies were operating in the area at the time, Burness said, including the Colorado Army National Guard, Denver Police, the Colorado State Patrol and sheriffs’ departments from various counties across the state. Burness said he believes the officer who trained his gun at them was with the Colorado State Patrol.

The Tracker reached out to the Colorado State Patrol, which refused to comment on the incidents, saying they involved the Denver Police Department. A request for comment to the Denver Police Department was not immediately returned.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd-control ammunition or tear gas or who had their equipment damaged in the course of reporting. Find all incidents related to Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests here.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].