Media Companies Complain to Sheriff's Dept. About Arrest of Reporter

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A coalition of 64 media organizations called on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department today to withdraw a citation against KPCC and LAist reporter Josie Huang, who was pinned to the ground and handcuffed while covering the arrest of a demonstrator following the shooting of two deputies in Compton.

The letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press echoes other media groups that have disputed the sheriff's version of the arrest, and calls on the department “to take immediate steps to prevent another incident like the arrest of (Huang).''

A spokesman for the sheriff's department told City News Service the case is still under investigation and the department had no further comment.

Huang was arrested Saturday night as she was covering a confrontation involving a handful of protesters at the emergency room entrance of St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, where the wounded deputies were brought for treatment.

Video from the scene showed deputies pinning Huang to the ground and arresting her.

The sheriff's department claimed she didn't have proper media credentials, failed to properly identify herself as a reporter and was “interfering with a lawful arrest'' of one of the protesters. Sheriff Alex Villanueva later doubled down on that contention, saying Huang got “right up on the shoulder'' of a deputy trying to make an arrest, and saying her actions were more “activism'' than journalism.

Video from Huang's cell phone has since surfaced, showing her repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter, shouting “KPCC,'' and saying, “You're hurting me'' and crying out in apparent pain.

Inspector General Max Huntsman -- who has clashed with Villanueva over previous investigations involving the LASD -- has opened an investigation into Huang's arrest, and is scheduled to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday morning to discuss his probe into Huang's arrest.

Huang, who was released after about five hours in custody, was cited and could face charges under California Penal Code Section 148 for obstructing a law enforcement officer from performing his or her lawful duties.

The coalition's letter accuses deputies of violating her constitutional rights.

“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,'' the group contends in the letter. “Based on multiple recordings of the incident, it appears that the Department's arrest of Ms. Huang violated these clearly established First Amendment rights.''

The Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote a letter to Huntsman on Wednesday asking that his office make public all information it gathers in the investigation.

“The department's treatment of Huang threatens to have a chilling effect on journalists across the county. We cannot overstate the importance of a thorough investigation by your office,'' chapter president David Zahniser wrote.

Meanwhile, Villanueva apologized Wednesday for a separate incident involving one of his deputies, who shined his flashlight at a television camera operated by a Fox11 crew that was documenting the arrest of a suspect at a fire.

“Unbelievable. Look at this LA County Sheriff's Deputy shining his flashlight directly into our @foxla camera, trying to prevent us from recording an arrest made at fire,'' reporter Gigi Graciette tweeted. “Said we weren't allowed to videotape. What? We are standing on sidewalk where law clearly allows us to be.''

Villanueva responded soon after with his own tweet.

“I have personally spoken to @GigiGraciette and apologized on behalf of @LASDHQ for the wrongful actions of one of our personnel while she and @FoxLA were reporting on an arrest,'' the sheriff said.

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