SEATTLE - The Office of Police Accountability is investigating whether a Seattle Police officer used unlawful force against at least one journalist during a police-declared riot the last Saturday of July.
Seattle Police said it may be difficult for officers to tell protesters and journalists apart in the chaos, and that sometimes journalists may be “inadvertently hit” when standing on the line of a protest.
But Seattle Gay News reporter Renee Raketty said she was far from the protest line when a police officer threw a blast ball her way. Days later, when she returned to the scene, the pieces of the blast ball remained, along with a mark on the asphalt where the blast went off.
“To see the physical blast ball myself really upsets me because I was just sitting there doing my job,” Raketty said. “I didn’t deserve this.”
Raketty said she was sitting alone on a fire escape staircase along 11th Avenue near East Pine Street on July 25, taking a break from documenting the clashes between police and protesters.
From her perch, she said she started to record with her professional camera. The protesters were down the block and she was well behind the police line on the fire escape. She said she wore a press badge.
At the beginning of the clip, she’s coughing from the pepper spray in the air. As she zooms out, you can watch in the corner of her frame as a bicycle officer walks her way and casually lobs a blast ball beneath her.
In bracing for the blast, she accidentally stopped recording before it went off. She said she was disoriented and inhaled chemicals from the blast.
“I had to watch the video over and over and over again just to believe it myself, and if I hadn’t documented it on video I wouldn’t believe it happened,” she said.
When shown the video, Seattle Police told Q13 News, “It is difficult to say whether this blast ball deployment is justified or not, as we are not able to see the activities prior to the recording.”
The officer’s actions are under review. Seattle Police forwarded the incident to OPA, which confirmed it’s collecting and reviewing the video and other evidence, including body-worn video and witness interviews.
“If there’s any evidence whatsoever that a police officer purposefully targets a member of the media or legal observer, those complaints get directed immediately to OPA, an independent investigative body,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said when asked about police force against journalists. “They will investigate them and [Seattle Police] Chief Best will hold them accountable.”
After many reports of journalists and legal observers facing police force during protests, Durkan asked multiple police oversight agencies to review and update the Seattle Police Department’s policies and training around identifying and protecting those covering demonstrations.
There are several incidents caught on video showing journalists getting hit with blast balls and pepper sprayed during the July 25 riot, even after journalists told police officers they are members of the press.
“The police treat the press just the same as they would a protester, there’s no difference,” said independent journalist Chris Rojas.
Despite the danger, he said he is determined to document these moments, which is why he showed up to that Saturday protest and stayed after police declared it a riot.
“If bad things happen and no one is there to film it, then it’ll just go and continue,” Rojas said. “Journalists are obligated to stay in areas like that to shine light on things that are hidden.”
That day, Rojas captured police forcefully shoving a protester to the ground. Before being shoved, the protester was standing firm in the street with her hands in the air, one hand holding a cell phone.
Another video of his appears to show a protester knocked unconscious during an arrest. Her body is limp as police stand around her.
His drive to shine light on these events is the same drive that drew him to Iraq as an embedded photojournalist during the war. Back in Seattle, he said the sounds on the street are traumatizing.
“It is kind of weird to hear that in Seattle, it is very unusual to feel like, ‘Oh, this is like Iraq, this is like being in a war zone,’” he said.
The munitions are certainly different, but like Iraq, Rojas said he feels like being press doesn’t protect him from violence, even though police policy says it should.
Seattle Police declined to interview for this story but did send Q13 News a statement:
“It is unfortunate that journalists and citizen observers were pepper sprayed, hit with blast balls, and ‘pushed around’ by the police on Saturday. The Seattle Police Department does not target journalists nor intentionally deploy less lethal tools at them. In large crowds, with chaotic and evolving events, it may be difficult for officers to discern who is a reporter and who is not when deploying crowd control tools. It is always possible, when standing on the line of a protest that a journalist or citizen observer may be inadvertently hit with a less lethal munition – this is what makes these events challenging and sometimes dangerous.”