Consent orders on arrests of journalists released as Ferguson awaits grand jury decision

Amelia Rufer | Newsgathering | News | November 21, 2014

(Editor's note: The Reporters Committee's hotline, 800-336-4243, will be available during any upcoming unrest for journalists who are interfered with while covering the news.)

As St. Louis anxiously awaits a grand jury decision on whether to indict the officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, city, county and state officials have agreed to consent orders regarding the arrest of journalists to end litigation brought by the ACLU over earlier events in Ferguson.

The city agreed that its officers "shall not enforce or threaten to enforce any rule, policy, or practice that grants law enforcement officers the authority or discretion to arrest, threaten to arrest, or interfere with any individual, including any member of the media or member of the public photographing or recording in public places unless that person is threatening the safety of others or physically interfering with the ability of law enforcement to perform their duties." The orders regarding the county police and state highway patrol are similar but without specific reference to local rules.

Since the last wave of Ferguson protests, media organizations are making sure that reporters covering the Ferguson beat are better prepared this time around.

The newspapers of greater St. Louis came together with city police, local media and members of the national media to develop protocol that would ensure their safety and mitigate run-ins with law enforcement.

According to Editor-in-Chief Gilbert Bailon, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch received training from a city police officer on basic issues like what to wear and where to park.

In order to reduce the number of reporters police confuse for protestors, Bailon said they’ve reformatted their press ID tags to look more “authentic and official.”

But certain precautions — if they are indeed warranted — reveal more serious concerns.

“We have some bulletproof vests and some helmets, particularly for photographers and reporters who will be close in,” Bailon said in a phone interview.

Police commanders met with the Post-Dispatch and other local media to educate reporters and photographers about designated areas for press that can best ensure their safety. Bailon said he just hopes it’s an improvement from last time.

“There were designated areas for media but before, they weren’t close enough,” said Bailon. “If we’re two blocks away then we can’t do our job.”

The Post-Dispatch has had its attorney advise journalists on potential issues, but Bailon said heeding police warnings is the best method to reduce journalist arrests.

“The biggest thing is to cooperate with them because we don’t want anyone arrested. If they’re telling you to get out street, then get out of the street,” said Bailon. “Before, when other journalists got arrested it’s been, ‘we told you not to cross this line and you crossed this line.’”

The newspaper says it is working with representatives of other national press organizations on additional safety tips. According to Bailon, the Post-Dispatch sought guidance from Associated Press and Reuters reporters with experience in similarly volatile settings.

"Out in the field, journalists are clearly worried about their own safety,” Bailon explained.