U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist charged with failure to disperse while covering Echo Park protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 25, 2021

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Los Angeles Police Department
Charges
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
No

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
No
March 25, 2021

At least 20 journalists, and likely more, were arrested or detained in Los Angeles, California, while documenting demonstrations near Echo Park Lake on March 25, 2021, as reported to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, on social media and in other news outlets.

As crowds demonstrated against the city’s plan to clear a large homeless encampment, Los Angeles Police Department officers declared the gathering at the park’s northern entrance unlawful shortly after 8 p.m., The Washington Post reported.

Before anyone could exit, according to The Post, a supervising officer announced that everyone was under arrest and officers surrounded the group using a police tactic called “kettling.”

Orange County-based independent photojournalist Robert “Chip” Sneed told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that as soon as officers declared the unlawful assembly he moved from the street to the sidewalk, in order to avoid possible arrest for standing in the roadway.

Sneed said that protesters had begun moving away from the police line when law enforcement rushed the crowd. Then, he said, a second group of officers came out from a nearby alley to kettle the group.

“As the protesters are moving backward, the police line does a bullrush and I’m toward the front of the crowd at that point, and I get knocked over and banged up a little bit,” Sneed said. “Luckily some people helped me up and carried me back a bit.”

Once the crowd was surrounded by the police kettle, Sneed said, he ran back and forth to photograph arrests as officers detained individuals one by one. Within minutes, however, Sneed said he also was arrested.

“I don’t know whether they were targeting me already,” he said, but as he made his way across a street, “I made eye contact with two officers that were moving forward from behind the skirmish line to make an arrest and they ran toward me and told me I was under arrest.” Sneed said he identified himself to the officers as press and showed them a press badge that he had created himself. He said he was also carrying two professional cameras, a GoPro camera and was filming with his cellphone when he was arrested.

“I kept asking to speak to the supervisor. Eventually I was able to, and I explained that I was press and I was well within my First Amendment rights to be documenting what was going on and he informed me that apparently they had made an announcement that said press and media were also subject to arrest if they didn’t disperse.”

After waiting 45 minutes on the sidewalk and another hour on a police bus, Sneed said he was transported to the LAPD Metropolitan Detention Center. He said he was released after midnight on March 26 and given paperwork ordering him to appear in court on July 30, on a charge of failure to disperse.

Around the time it was making arrests, LAPD issued a statement on Twitter that reads, in part, “As a reminder, members of the media are also to obey the dispersal orders. Members of the media are to use the designated media viewing area.”

At around 1 a.m. on March 26, the LAPD posted another statement specifically addressing the detainments of members of the press.

“An unlawful assembly was declared by the Incident Commander after the unlawful activity of individuals threatened the safety of the officers and all those present,” the statement reads. According to the statement, police declared the gathering unlawful in part because protesters were shining strobe lights at police, which can “cause significant injury to the eyes.”

The statement says members of the press were directed to identify themselves and relocate to a media area about 350 feet away from the crowd.

The LAPD statement notes that as individual arrests were made of those inside the kettle, police officers “learned that several credentialed and non-credentialed members of the media were part of the group. Members from the Department’s Media Relations Division were summoned to assist in identifying these individuals and they were released at scene without being arrested.”

Sneed retweeted the statement, noting that at no time did he hear the order for the media to disperse and that when he identified himself as press he was told it didn’t matter.

A Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson, reached by phone, told the Tracker that department policy is not to discuss arrests once paperwork has been filed. The spokesperson did not respond to emailed requests to confirm details about Sneed’s arrest, including confirming whether police had filed paperwork charging him or intended to do so.

On April 29, Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the office had not received cases from police concerning Sneed or the other journalists who had received police citations more than a month earlier, on March 25.

Sneed told the Tracker on May 17 that he had received no notice that the charges were dropped against him, but said that he had expected that they would be.

Despite the lack of communication to the journalists involved, and barring further information, the Tracker is listing the charges against Sneed as “dropped” based on the lack of paperwork filed.

The Tracker documents all arrests separately. Find all arrests and detainments from the Echo Park Lake protest here.

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