Journalist arrested, cameras seized while covering protests in Washington, DC

August 13, 2020

Freelance journalist Kian Kelley-Chung was arrested while covering protests in Washington D.C. on Aug. 13, 2020, and held overnight in jail. Although police dropped felony riot charges against him, the journalist’s two cameras and cell phone were seized by law enforcement officers and were not returned for over two months, Kelley-Chung told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

On the evening of Aug. 13 and into the morning of Aug. 14, protestors demonstrating against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement marched through the neighborhood of Adams Morgan, according to local news reports. Protestors said they were surrounded and corralled on 18th Street NW, between Florida Avenue and Willard Street, by police officers who then began arresting people in the crowd, according to news reports. In a statement, the Metropolitan Police Department said that officers arrested 41 people on charges of “Felony Riot Acts and Assault on a Police Officer offenses” and alleged that protestors had also been involved in acts of arson and destruction of property.

Kelley-Chung, who has been covering Black Lives Matter protests for several months as an independent photographer and filmmaker, was among those arrested and charged with felony rioting, according to police records. The journalist told public radio station WAMU/DCist that he was arrested while trying to photograph the aftermath of an altercation between police and a protester. Kelley-Chung said his camera was clearly visible and that he told officers he was documenting the protests as a journalist, according to television network WUSA 9. “I just remember asking constantly, ‘Why am I being arrested? Why am I being arrested?…I’ve been here for months…You’ve seen my work,’ ” he was quoted as saying. Kelley-Chung told WAMU/DCist that he was taken into custody and held at the 7th District police precinct overnight and then detained at Superior Court before being released on the evening of Aug. 14, when the charges were dropped.

In a brief video interview posted to twitter by Deadspin journalist Chuck Modi the day after his release, Kelley-Chung said, “they thought they could stop me, they can’t stop me. I’m going to continue to be out here.” But the journalist said he was using his father’s camera because the two cameras he had been using, in addition to his cell phone, were still in police custody.

Seven weeks later, in a letter dated Oct. 6 that Kelley-Chung shared with the Tracker, Acting United States Attorney Michael R. Sherwin wrote that the MPD, in conjunction with the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, was conducting an investigation into the events in Adams Morgan on Aug. 13-14 and that they believed that the journalist’s cameras “may contain information relevant to the investigation. We are writing to inquire whether you would voluntarily turn over data in the above-described cameras or produce such information voluntarily in response to a subpoena.”

After objections from Kelley-Chung’s lawyer, Sherwin wrote the journalist in another letter, dated Oct. 22, that his “Office has indicated to MPD that we have no objection to its disposition of Mr. Kelley-Chung’s property,” but that, “we are formally requesting the preservation, pending potential legal process and until further written notice, of all photographs, videos, audio recordings, and other evidence, created or captured on August 13-14, 2020.” However, the letter concluded, “this request does not obligate Mr. Kelley-Chung to produce any materials to the government at this time." Kelley-Chung told the Tracker that his possessions were released to him the following day, Oct. 23.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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

April 14, 2021 Update

Freelance journalist Kian Kelley-Chung dropped the lawsuit he brought against Washington, D.C. officials and the Metropolitan Police Department on April 14, 2021, almost exactly eight months after he was arrested while covering protests in the city.

Kelley-Chung, who is a documentary filmmaker, was one of more than 40 people arrested and charged with felony rioting on Aug. 13, 2020, and law enforcement seized his two cameras and cell phone. Though police dropped the charge against him, they held onto his equipment for more than two months.

As part of the National Press Photographers Association and First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund Legal Advocacy Initiative, attorneys filed a suit on behalf of Kelley-Chung against Acting Chief of Police Robert Contee, III; more than a dozen individual officers; and the department as a whole on Jan. 13, 2021, alleging officers had violated Kelley-Chung’s First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that the department had failed to properly train, supervise and discipline its officers.

According to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Kelley-Chung reached a settlement agreement with the District of Columbia on March 22, 2021; the journalist filed a notice of dismissal on April 13, noting that the city had satisfied its obligations under the agreement. The details of the settlement were not released.

Kelley-Chung told DCist that the settlement includes an undisclosed sum that compensates him for the camera equipment he had to replace and his loss of income resulting from the arrest, and will help finance his documentary on the D.C. protest movement.

“I think that it is the slightest semblance of accountability,” Kelley-Chung said.

In NPPA’s statement on the settlement, Kelley-Chung said: “It is important that people remember the power they have when they hold a camera, and their ability to hold the system accountable.”

The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

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