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Journalist detained by Omaha police for covering protests after curfew

June 1, 2020

Michelle Renne Leach, a freelance journalist on assignment for the Daily Beast, was briefly detained by police in Omaha, Nebraska, while covering a protest against police violence on June 1, 2020, she told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Leach was one of at least six journalists who were either detained, searched or aggressively confronted by law enforcement while covering the protest that evening, according to several journalists on the ground that night.

For days, Omaha officials had struggled to respond to escalating protests that began in Minnesota on May 26 and spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Protesters once again gathered on June 1 after Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced that a white bar owner would not be charged in the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old black man two days earlier, according to the Associated Press. Kleine said the bar owner had fired in self-defense.

The Daily Beast had contacted Leach to report on the developing story, she told the Tracker. When she arrived at the protest, Leach found a calm scene. But things escalated quickly as an 8 p.m. curfew drew close, she said.

Several hundred protesters peacefully engaged with police and National Guardsmen only a block away from the location of the bar shooting in the Old Market area, according to news reports.

After protesters and law enforcement took a knee together, Deputy Police Chief Ken Kanger attempted to escort a large group of the remaining protesters out of the area so they could return home for curfew, according to the Omaha World-Herald. But a water bottle was thrown, pepper balls were fired and the chaos of mass arrests quickly enveloped the block.

Leach told the Tracker she captured an image of police cuffing a kneeling protester right before she, too, was detained. She said one of the arresting officers knew she was a journalist because she had talked to him earlier to get estimates of the number of protesters and officers.

“I was just confused that I was even being arrested because he knew I was just trying to do my job,” Leach said.

The police cuffed Leach in plastic restraints and placed her phone and notebook into her bag. She said at least two officers then led her to a fenced area across the street where they were holding others in custody. They then searched her belongings.

Leach repeatedly insisted she was a journalist throughout her detention and search of her belongings.

At least five other journalists were caught up in the police action as well. The Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests here.

The incidents occurred despite the curfew explicitly excluding "members of the media.” As police waited to transport the arrested protesters, they asked members of the media to leave the area, World-Herald reporter Mike Sautter told the Tracker. The block was “like a crime scene,” the police said.

The detained journalists, including Leach, were eventually released.

Police took Leach away from the other protesters to investigate whether she was a journalist, she told the Tracker. She did not have press credentials.

“I don’t know how much it really would have mattered,” she said, citing the treatment of the other journalists. “The onus really fell on me to show them all of my work and prove who I was.”

After examining Leach’s online portfolio, officers found a National Guardsman to cut off her restraints, she said. The officers told her to hold onto them and gave her a slip of paper to show to any other law enforcement official who might try to arrest her for a curfew violation as she returned home.

Leach said that only upon returning home, her hands tingling and numb, did she realize how tight the restraints had been tied.

Lieutenant Sherie Thomas, a spokesperson for the Omaha Police Department, told the Tracker that Police Chief Todd Schmaderer had ordered “an overall review of the protests.” Thomas later said that the department sent "clear communication" to news outlets "to make sure employees had visible badges showing that they work for the media" and to "wear highly visible vests."

Major Scott Ingalsbe, a spokesperson for the Nebraska National Guard, told the Tracker, “Once National Guardsmen and law enforcement were able to quickly and correctly identify members of the news media, they were released without arrest.”

"We appreciate the work journalists do and the service they provide to our community," Ingalsbe said. He added that he had personally reached out to outlets covering the protests and has yet to hear any indications the National Guard harmed them or interfered with their work.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert did not respond to request for comment.

Two days after the protest, the prosecutor reversed course on the shooting case, according to news reports. A grand jury would review the case after all.

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

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