Judge dismisses charges against Detroit police officer who hit photojournalist
Felony charges were dismissed against Detroit police officer Daniel Debono on Oct. 26, 2021, following an internal investigation that found he had fired rubber bullets at photojournalist Seth Herald, who was on assignment for Agence France-Presse, and two other photojournalists in 2020.
Herald was documenting protests in Detroit, Michigan, on May 31, 2020, that followed the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota. He told the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time that he was on his way to his car with two other photojournalists, Getty Images photographer Matthew Hatcher and MLive staff photographer Nicole Hester, when they encountered two police officers, including Debono. Herald said they identified as members of the press and put their hands up before being fired upon.
After the preliminary hearing, Wayne County 36th District Court Judge Roberta Archer agreed with the defense’s argument that police had given an order to disperse before firing and Debono could not clearly identify who was a member of the press during the chaos of the protest.
According to MLive, Herald said during this testimony that no one was rioting when the officers started shooting at them.
Archer said during the hearing that if the journalists were identifiable, an officer wouldn’t use non-lethal force.
“Their press badges were the size of credit cards and large badges were not added until the day after,” he said. “It’s troubling, but it forces me to pivot back to the job the officers were given. In a perfect world they would have had badges as large as the ones given out after the incident. To me, from the distance we saw, I am not satisfied (Debono) was able to determine the three were the press.”
Archer concluded that Debono was protected under state law which granted him qualified immunity from prosecution if someone is injured or killed while the officer is performing lawful duties and dismissed the charges against him.
Editor’s note: The assaults of Nicole Hester, Matt Hatcher and Seth Herald originally published with the date May 30, 2020. The court filing and subsequent MLive news stories mark the event as occurring after midnight the following morning; the date of all three journalists’ assaults have been updated to reflect the change.
Freelance photojournalist Seth Herald was on assignment for Agence France-Presse covering demonstrations in Detroit, Michigan, when he was struck alongside other photographers by crowd-control munitions fired by police on May 31, 2020.
The protests that evening were in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.
Herald, along with Matthew Hatcher, on assignment for Getty Images, and Nicole Hester, a staff photographer for MLive, encountered at least two officers while trying to return to their car in the Kennedy Parking Garage downtown around midnight, according to Herald and Hatcher.
The photographers told the Committee to Protect Journalists — a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — that they put their hands in the air and identified themselves as members of the press. They said they thought the police signaled that they could cross the street when the officers opened fire.
Hatcher sent pictures to CPJ that showed his injuries: a busted, bleeding lip and welts on his nose, forehead and torso. Hester was hit with as many as a dozen pellets in the face, arms, legs and chest, leaving welts and narrowly missing an eye, according to the article by her employer.
After police fired on the journalists, Herald told CPJ, he asked one of the officers if he believed in freedom of the press. The officer answered that he didn’t know, Herald said.
According to the MLive article, one of the officers told Hester: “Maybe you’ll write the truth some day, lady!”
The three journalists then continued to the parking garage and passed another group of officers. One told them that if he saw their faces again, he would lock them up, according to MLive and interviews with Herald and Hatcher.
The trio arrived to find the parking garage locked and had to leave their car overnight, walking several blocks to get a ride-share home, Hatcher told CPJ.
On July 20, Detroit Police Corporal Daniel Debono was charged with three counts of felony assault for shooting non-lethal rounds at Hester, Herald and Hatcher, according to MLive.
In the article, the vice president of content for MLive Media Group said that they “are pleased that the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office investigated this thoroughly, and that this is moving forward toward justice."
The Detroit Police Department did not respond to phone or emailed requests for comment.
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.