U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

KMTV journalists caught up in arrests in Omaha

Incident Details

June 1, 2020

Jon Kipper, a reporter for CBS affiliate KMTV, was briefly detained by police in Omaha, Nebraska, as he covered a protest against police violence on June 1, 2020, Kipper said on social media.

Kipper 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.

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.

Shortly before the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, Kipper shared a photo on Twitter of Deputy Police Chief Kanger kneeling with other law enforcement officers and protesters.

Kanger then 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.

In a video Kipper posted on Twitter, police can be seen making arrests amid a chaotic chorus of pepper ball shots, screams and shouts of “On the ground!” Kipper swings the camera to the left to show an advancing line of riot police.

“I’m media,” Kipper says to the approaching officers. He repeats it again, and then a third time even louder.

“On the ground!” an officer orders Kipper, who appears to lower himself as the camera angle shifts. For a fourth and fifth time, Kipper says he’s media.

The officer reaches out and suddenly the camera—and Kipper—tumble to the pavement. For a sixth time, Kipper yells that he’s media—this time with an expletive for emphasis. Then the video cuts out.

At the same time on the same block, two of Kipper’s colleagues were also nearly detained. Reporters Maya Saenz and Kent Luetzen both recorded videos of a National Guardsman apparently attempting to detain them.

In the videos, Luetzen repeatedly says, “We’re fine. We’re fine,” as law enforcement make arrests all around them. Suddenly, a National Guardsman grabs Luetzen. Both journalists repeatedly scream, “We are media! We are media!” before the guardsman disengages.

Saenz films a protester shrieking as a police officer brings them into custody. Another officer screams, “Get out!” at the journalists. They then weave around several protesters on the ground in an attempt to find safety.

“OK, I think it’s time to go,” Saenz says in the video after leaving the block.

Both Kipper and Saenz were wearing polo shirts with a KMTV logo. It is not clear from the footage whether Luentzen was also displaying the logo.

Kipper said on Twitter he was released after an officer took him to the side of the action and confirmed his profession.

At least three other journalists were caught up in the police action as well, including two who were briefly detained. 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 were eventually released.

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 KMTV and other 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. The KMTV journalists also did not respond to requests 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].