Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores printed the judge’s ruling that the newspaper and four other Seattle news organizations should provide police with unpublished photos and video footage of riots in the city.
Police had been looking for reporters’ footage of a May 30 riot triggered by a George Floyd protest, in which vandals smashed windows and set police vehicles on fire – and stole various equipment, including two firearms that are not yet known. The violence prompted Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to impose a curfew and Washington Governor Jay Inslee activated troops of the National Guard in case the riots continued.
Nelson Lee, judge in the King County Superior Court, ruled Thursday morning that the footage was pivotal to police investigations into arson and theft. However, Lee also limited the footage the police could obtain to the footage captured on professional camera equipment, not journalists’ cell phones. The police are also prohibited from using the images as evidence in any investigation, except for arson and theft of police property.
The police should not use the images to investigate minor crimes such as vandalism, even if the images contain evidence of such activity. The images would apply to a span of 90 minutes over an area of about four blocks.
“The media largely exists to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public,” said Flores said of the verdict. “We don’t work with the government and it is important to our credibility and effectiveness to maintain our independence from those we treat.” Flores also claimed that the statement could “endanger even the physical safety of our employees.”
National assessment contacted the Seattle Times for additional comments.
New York Times correspondent Mike Baker, who lives in the northwest Pacific Ocean and has condemned the ongoing riots in Portland, Oregon, also condemned the verdict.
“This type of statement endangers journalists,” Baker wrote on Twitter. Protesters are often wary of media outlets in their midst. Journalists need independence, or they will be seen as arms control. ‘
Law enforcement requests for images made by reporters are not without precedent. Daily caller reporter Geoffrey Ingersoll wrote on Twitter that the FBI asked “outright” reporters from the outlet for footage of a 2017 brawl in Charlottesville, NC, in which “a group of neo-Nazis beat a young black man in a parking garage.”
“Four of the people identified in videos of the beating were sentenced to prison terms,” said Ingersoll noted.
Protests against police brutality have erupted in the United States since the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by Minneapolis officers during the arrest. However, during the last weekend of May, some of those demonstrations turned into massive riots and looting.
Seattle saw the creation of a six-block “autonomous zone” by protesters after police evacuated the city’s sixth district. That protest was spread after a series of shootings in the area, and companies in the zone sued the city for its “decision to leave and shut down an entire city district.”