A member of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office searched the bag of Omaha World-Herald reporter Reece Ristau as he covered a protest against police violence in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 1, 2020, Ristau told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Ristau 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.
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 the city’s 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.
Ristau told the Tracker that when he saw officers don gas masks, he put on his orange vest and safety glasses. With a large press badge around his neck, Ristau began filming arrests.
“Once the first pepper balls were fired, things moved quickly,” Ristau said.
In a video Ristau posted to his social media, a police officer kicks, punches and stomps on a protester struggling on the ground with two National Guardsmen. Ristau continues to film as he walks into the crowd of arrested protesters. Crying and coughing can be heard over the ratcheting of zip ties. An officer then warns Ristau in the video to “Back it up.”
Shortly thereafter, a Sarpy County Sheriff officer tapped Ristau on the shoulder and said he needed to search Ristau’s backpack, Ristau told the Tracker. Ristau said he was unsure of the officer’s rank.
Ristau showed his press badge and said he did not consent to a search. But the officer insisted and threatened to jail Ristau if he did not comply, Ristau said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ristau noticed his colleague Anna Reed focus her camera in his direction, he said. Her photo of the search shows Ristau in safety goggles, mask and bright orange vest holding his backpack in front of the officer equipped in riot gear, plastic restraints hanging at the ready.
Without Ristau’s consent, the officer searched through Ristau’s bag. Ristau said the officer did not ask to search his phone or question him about his reporting.
At least five other journalists were caught up in the police action as well, including three 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.
Ristau said that his paper’s executive editor, Randy Essex, complained about the search to the Omaha mayor, Jean Stothert, and law enforcement officials.
Sarpy County Sheriff Chief Deputy Greg London refused to respond to questions about the search of Ristau’s bag.
“Just like a journalist, I’d be extremely remiss if I responded to secondhand information that I haven’t verified,” he said, adding that Ristau can file a formal complaint or contact him if he felt mistreated.
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.
Mayor 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 headline of this article was updated to emphasize the journalists were detained, not arrested.