Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007 | During last week’s wildfires, news reporters and camera operators were denied access to neighborhood recovery centers, harassed by law enforcement officers and engaged in a fiery e-mail battle with the San Diego Police Department’s media services manager, according to a report released Thursday by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The report details at least three claims by journalists that law enforcement officers unreasonably kept them from reporting on events as they unfolded in the wake of the fires.
Julio Vasquez, a television cameraman with Channel 8 KFMB-TV, told the ACLU that he was harassed as he tried to film the aftermath of the detention of 12 Latino evacuees, some of whom were subsequently deported to Mexico.
One police officer told him to stop filming because the officers were undercover agents, Vasquez told the ACLU. Then the officer pushed Vasquez’s microphone down and “came at him,” the report states.
“They took my name and affiliation and said they would tell my boss at my station, and said the relationship between officers and [the station] would be ruined,” the report quotes Vasquez as saying.
William Maheu, San Diego’s executive assistant police chief, said he has not been contacted by Channel 8, but that if he is, he will look into the incident.
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the incident with Vasquez meant the public was poorly informed about what actually happened when the Latino evacuees were arrested. The misinformation spread after the arrests led to harassment of people of color, primarily Latinos, at county evacuation centers, Keenan said. The accounts of alleged media harassment formed part of a broader report by the ACLU into the treatment of vulnerable populations during the fires.
A separate complaint made to the ACLU concerned local radio station KPBS reporter Kenny Goldberg. Goldberg said in an interview that he was denied access to a disaster assistance center that had been set up by city employees at the Rancho Bernardo Glassman Recreation Center.
After being told he couldn’t enter the building to talk to residents, Goldberg said he asked to speak to a public information officer. He said he informed the police officers that denying him access to the center was illegal. The officers sent out a sergeant to talk to him, Goldberg said. The sergeant was belligerent and aggressive, Goldberg said, and repeated the claim that Goldberg couldn’t enter the building.
“That’s absolute nonsense, it’s a public building,” Goldberg said in the interview. “You can’t restrict access to a public building.”
Terry Francke, an attorney with Californians Aware, a group that advocates for open government, said Goldberg’s right. He said the California Penal Code has a section that deals with law enforcement agencies’ right to restrict access to certain public areas under certain circumstances, but that the provision does not apply to members of the media.
“There’s nothing in the statute that gives the police simply the authority to declare that the public shall not enter a shelter or a recovery center, any more than they have the authority to kick people out of an emergency room or a hospital or some other kind of aid station,” Francke said.
But Maheu said he believes his department is on firm legal ground. He said the Police Department restricted access to recovery centers only at certain times, as a means of protecting the privacy of residents inside the centers who may have been traumatized and may be upset by the presence of cameras and reporters.
Monica Munoz, the police department’s media services manager, put it more bluntly. Calling the allegations that the police hampered press activity “absolutely baseless,” she said.
“These victims have the right to privacy; they have the right to talk to someone without someone sticking a camera in their face while they’re breaking down,” she said.
Fred Sainz, spokesman for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, said the media access to recovery centers during this year’s wildfires was much more relaxed than four years ago in the Cedar Fire, when he said no journalists were allowed in the centers at all. Sainz said restricting access to the centers is both legal and sensible, because it protects people’s privacy and it prevents the small centers from turning into chaotic media circuses.
Another section of the ACLU report details a heated debate that surfaced during the wildfires between local journalists and Munoz.
On Wednesday, Oct. 24, Munoz sent out an e-mail missive to reporters and media managers with the subject line: “Media warning.”
The e-mail reads: “Media personnel who are caught trying to sneak residents back into areas under mandatory evacuation will not be allowed access. Please understand that individuals who are caught in mandatory evacuation areas are subject to arrest …”
That e-mail, sent just as the wildfires were reaching fever pitch in the county, resulted in a stern rebuke from Greg Todd, managing editor of local television station Fox 6 News. He wrote back to Munoz and all the journalists on her mailing list a few hours later.
“Monica — Your ‘Media Warning’ needs some perspective,” Todd wrote. “I can understand your thought process on this, but you should understand that California law guarantees the news media unrestricted access to disaster scenes unless they are directly interfering with emergency personnel, violating a specific law or that specific area is also a crime scene. And once they are no longer interfering with emergency personnel, they must be granted access.”
Francke said that again, in his legal opinion, police officers have no right to restrict access from public areas. In the landmark 1986 case Leiserson v. City of San Diego it was decided that journalists should be given unfettered access to disaster zones, Francke said.
“Police can cordon off certain otherwise public areas and keep the public out, but authorized credentialed news representatives cannot be stopped by that tape,” Francke said.
Keenan said he was troubled about the reports of media harassment, and said the SDPD needs to put in place concrete policies that lay out rules and advice for police officers in disaster situations.
“There clearly needs to be some policy development and clarification with the San Diego Police Department,” he said.