The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office on Sept. 24 announced that it will not pursue charges against KPCC/LAist reporter Josie Huang, who was tackled and arrested by sheriff’s deputies on Sept. 13 while covering the aftermath of the shooting of two deputies.
While the deputies, who survived, were hospitalized in Lynwood, a small group of protesters allegedly blocked the entrance to the emergency room and chanted that they hoped the deputies would die. Huang was recording the arrest of one of the protesters when she herself was arrested.
Her footage, which survived even though deputies repeatedly stomped on her phone, contradicted Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s repeated assertions that Huang was interfering with the arrest and failed to identify herself as a reporter.
The prosecutor’s report reads as follows: “The following synopsis is based on police reports, video supplied by LASD, and video posted on the Internet.
“On Saturday, Sept. 13, 2020, at 12:10 a.m ., at the St. Francis Hospital in the City of Lynwood, Ms. Huang, a reporter for KPCC, was filming an anti-police protest by the entrance to the emergency room. Two deputies had been rushed to St. Francis Hospital after being ambushed and shot in the head in the nearby city of Compton.
“As one of the protesters was being arrested, Ms. Huang was filming the incident. Deputies were kneeling on the ground to effectuate the arrest, some with their backs to her. It appears that she was standing in close proximity to the deputies and arrestee.
“Another deputy not directly involved in the arrest comes towards her and tells her to back up. He appears to almost instantly reach for her arm. Ms. Huang appears to step back, but it is unknown if she does so of her own volition, or if it is due to the deputy making contact with her.
“She is quickly taken to the ground and can be heard screaming that she is a reporter and screams the call letters KPCC. She also has a lanyard around her neck with something attached to the end of it. Although the reports are silent as to exactly what is attached to the lanyard, at a press conference the Sheriff’s Department announced that it was her KPCC work identity card.
“It also appears that at least one deputy heard her say she was a reporter, because he can be heard to say, ‘Do what you’re told if you’re a reporter.’
“Ms. Huang was in a public area filming a protest. When asked to back up she is almost immediately grabbed by deputies and taken to the ground, giving her little if any time to comply.
“It does not appear that she was intentionally attempting to interfere with the deputies, but merely trying to record the occurrence. While she was in close proximity to deputies making an arrest, and while deputies had reason to ask her to back up, Ms. Huang was not given the opportunity to comply with their demand.
“Further, PC 148(g) explicitly states: ‘The fact that a person takes a photograph or makes an audio or video recording of a public officer or peace officer, while the officer is in a public place or the person taking the photograph or making the recording is in a place he or she has the right to be, does not constitute, in and of itself, a violation …’
“For the reasons stated above, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of PC 148(a)(1).”
“I am gratified that the District Attorney’s Office has reviewed the evidence, including my video recordings of law enforcement activity, and reached the conclusion that it did,” Huang tweeted. “I am seeking a finding of ‘factual innocence’ that will wipe this unlawful arrest from my record.
“More than ever, I am grateful for the First Amendment, which entitles all Americans — not just journalists — to the rights of free speech and assembly.”
In its response, the LASD continued to deny wrongdoing and accuse Huang of a crime: “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department values the media and highly respects the freedom of the press. We are advocates of responsible reporting and strongly believe in transparency.
“With regard to the obstruction arrest (148pc) of Ms. Josie Huang, it is unfortunate this incident took place during a time in which our focus was on the horrific attempted assassination of two of our deputies. The events during that time were very tense and rapidly evolving.
“At that same time, our personnel were dealing with protesters who were blocking the driveway to the hospital emergency room and chanting for our wounded deputies to die, which could also be heard by their family members.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Huang inserted herself too close to the highly charged situation as an arrest was being made.
“This case was investigated and all the elements of the crime were present. The case was presented to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and they ultimately declined to prosecute. This is not uncommon, as they must weigh many factors into their decision.
“An internal investigation was opened in this matter and appropriate administrative action will be taken. We are unable to provide further comment at this time, due to personnel privacy laws.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, part of a coalition of 65 media organizations that had called on the Sheriff’s Department to drop all charges against Huang, said in a letter to Villanueva, “The right to record police activity in public is clearly established, and an officer who violates that First Amendment freedom — especially through the use of force — enjoys no legal immunity.”
“Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies should never have arrested and charged Josie Huang, who was reporting on protests that are of immense public interest and concern,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The charge against her must be dropped, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department owes both the press and the public an explanation as to why she was violently arrested, especially in light of multiple video recordings showing her clearly, loudly and repeatedly identifying herself as a journalist.
“We will continue to press for officials in California to take the necessary steps to protect journalists working to inform the public about ongoing demonstrations, and law enforcement’s response to them.”
The Reporters Committee has urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign SB 629, a bill that would strengthen protections for the press to gather and disseminate newsworthy information. In addition, this letter follows one that an earlier Reporters Committee coalition sent to California officials in July, urging mayors and police chiefs across the state to implement immediate, concrete steps to prevent law enforcement from continuing to arrest, detain, threaten and assault journalists covering protests.
In many of the cases of arrests and assaults of journalists that led to the July letter, there were strong indications that officers knew the individual was a member of the press.