Milwaukee reporter arrested, interrogated, and asked to delete photographs
On Aug. 5, 2018, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service reporter Edgar Mendez photographed Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) squad cars outside a police station. MPD officers then arrested him and took him to an interrogation room, where Mendez said detectives pressured him to answer questions without an attorney present and to delete three of his photographs.
In an interview with Freedom of the Press Foundation, Mendez said he was preparing for the publication of a big piece on the local police department’s emergency response times. When Mendez’s editor asked him to get a photo to accompany the piece, he decided to stop by a police station near his house and take some pictures of MPD squad cars lined up in the parking lot.
Mendez drove into the parking lot and started taking photos of the MPD cars in the parking lot. When he spotted a police officer in civilian clothes with a badge around his neck, he said he waved and explained that he was a reporter taking photos for a story. The officer waved back as he walked to his car.
Mendez said he also noticed a uniformed MPD officer walking through the parking lot toward a police wagon. The uniformed officer did not wave back to Mendez.
After Mendez finished taking photos and left the lot, he saw that the police wagon was following him.
“I drove about two blocks away,” he told Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I noticed in my rearview that there was a paddy wagon. It followed me for about four more blocks and then pulled me over. He came up to my window and asked me what I was doing in the lot.”
When Mendez identified himself as a journalist and explained that he was taking photographs for a news story, the officer asked him if he had seen the “no trespassing” sign next the police station parking lot. Mendez said that he had not, but he would have obeyed it if he had seen it. According to Mendez, the officer took Mendez’s ID and returned to the police van to run it. In the meantime, Mendez texted his editor to let her know that he had been pulled over.
As Mendez waited for the officer to return his ID, an MPD squad car pulled up next to the police van. Once the officer from the squad car spoke with the officer from the police van, both officers approached Mendez and told him to exit his vehicle.
“They said, ‘well I’m going to have to give you a ticket for trespassing, and I’m going to need to cuff you and take you back to the station,’” Mendez recalled, adding that the officers insisted on placing him under arrest instead of just writing him a ticket on the spot.
“I just told them that I was a reporter and they could verify that, and I didn’t know that there was a no trespassing sign.”
At the police station, Mendez said he was asked about his medical and criminal history before being led into an interrogation room for further questioning.
Although Mendez said that he felt that he perhaps needed a lawyer, he said a detective made him feel that he was being overly defensive.
“They made it seem that if I had requested a lawyer, I wasn’t going to get to leave and they would probably transfer me to county jail,” he said.
The detective, according to Mendez, asked him about his family, including details about his parents’ ages and addresses, and accused him of defying an order. Mendez said that he continued to repeat that he was a reporter, and had written about the Milwaukee police department multiple times.
“He asked me kind of casually: ‘what’s your story about?’ I said, I don’t feel comfortable telling you that.”
Mendez said that the detective asked to see the photographs he took, and threatened to confiscate his camera as evidence if he did not comply.
“By then, I was just giving up.”
Going through the photographs, Mendez recalled, the detective pointed out three that were “not fine” and ordered Mendez to erase them. He complied, and was later released.
On Dec. 3, Mendez was found not guilty of trespassing charges. A judge did find that he had parked in violation of the law, and he must pay a $50 fine.
“I wondered afterwards if what happened to me was because of my brown skin, or because I was a reporter writing about the MPD,” Mendez wrote in a first-person account of the incident for the Neighborhood News Service. “You have to remember that my arrest occurred at a time when President Trump had attacked people of Hispanic descent, repeatedly declared that all the news he didn’t agree with was “fake news,” and begun to call the press the “enemy of the people,” a sentiment he continues to espouse.”
The Neighborhood News Service is considering filing a complaint with MPD.
"We've been told we couldn't cover a meeting, that kind of thing, but never someone arrested and interrogated" over their work as a reporter,” Neighborhood News Service editor Sharon McGowan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It was outrageous the way he was treated.”
Milwaukee Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.