Detroit police officer who fired rubber bullets at photojournalist to stand trial
The Detroit police officer who fired rubber bullets at photojournalist Nicole Hester of Michigan news site MLive and two other journalists will stand trial after a state appeals court remanded the case back to a lower court on March 16, 2023, according to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The felony assault charges against Daniel Debono were initially dismissed in October 2021 by a district court judge, who argued that Debono would not have been able to clearly identify the journalists as members of the press during the chaos of the protest, and that Debono’s lawful actions entitled him to qualified immunity from prosecution.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office appealed to a circuit court, which reversed the charges’ dismissal, MLive reported. Debono’s counsel then appealed that ruling but the appeals court affirmed it, finding that Debono’s actions granted him an affirmative defense at trial but not immunity, and remanded the case to the district court.
Hester was documenting Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in Detroit in May 2020, when she and photojournalists Matthew Hatcher and Seth Herald encountered Debono and another police officer. The journalists identified themselves as members of the press; nevertheless, the officers fired rubber pellets at them, hitting their faces and bodies.
Debono is scheduled to be arraigned on Nov. 28, 2023.
Charges dismissed against officer who fired rubber bullets at MLive photographer
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 MLive photojournalist Nicole Hester and two other journalists in 2020.
Hester was documenting protests in Detroit, Michigan, on May 31, 2020, that followed the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota. She told the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time that she was on her way to her car with two other photojournalists, Matthew Hatcher and Seth Herald, when they encountered two police officers, including Debono. Hester said they identified as members of the press and put their hands up before being fired upon.
Hester said she was hit with at least a dozen rubber pellets in her face and body, with one narrowly missing her eye. According to MLive, Hester testified during the hearing, saying she attended the protest only to document.
“I was terrified,” Hester said. “I have never been shot in the face before. We put our hands up to show we weren’t a threat and we were met by being shot.”
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.
“The common sense takeaway is if they are readily identifiable, an officer wouldn’t use non-lethal force,” Archer said during the hearing. “Their press badges were the size of credit cards and large badges were not added until the day after. 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.
John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive Media Group, said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision to dismiss the charges.
“Nicole and her fellow journalists were there to document an extremely important story for our communities, and did not provoke or impede police in any way,” Hiner said. “It’s alarming that a judge would sanction this kind of force against anyone – citizen or journalist – who had their hands in the air.”
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.
MLive photojournalist Nicole Hester was covering demonstrations in Detroit, Michigan, when she 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.
Hester, along with Matthew Hatcher, on assignment for Getty Images, and Seth Herald, on assignment for Agence France-Presse, 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.
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. Hatcher sent pictures to CPJ that showed his injuries: a busted, bleeding lip and welts on his nose, forehead and torso.
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.