In May we told you about the arrest of CT Post reporter Tara O’Neill, who was taken into custody while covering a protest despite identifying herself as a reporter.
Brian Lockhart has written about the timing of the apology and its possible intersection with the Bridgeport mayoral election. The story is behind Hearst’s “CT Insider” paywall so we’re publishing it for you. You’re welcome.
BRIDGEPORT — Five months after his officers detained a Hearst Connecticut Media reporter covering a May 9 protest, Police Chief Armando Perez issued a written explanation and apology.
“We appreciate the press and believe in First Amendment rights. Those rights are sacred and fundamental to our society and we need to make sure we respect them by our actions,” Perez wrote Matt DeRienzo, Hearst Connecticut’s Vice President of News and Digital Content, in a letter released Tuesday. “We have every intention to do our best to accommodate your employees whenever we are able.”
Reporter Tara O’Neill was covering a rally marking the second anniversary of the shooting death of Jayson Negron, 15, by a rookie officer when she and 11 protesters were handcuffed and transported to the police department.
O’Neill identified herself as a news reporter before she was taken into custody and was later released without any charges.
The city this week released body camera footage from Sgt. Sean Lynch — who arrested O’Neill. The video shows the moment of the arrest, but has no audio.
But on the body camera footage of Officer Ashley Taylor, who was nearby at the time, O’Neill can be heard identifying herself as a member of the press and saying that she’s on a public sidewalk.
DeRienzo shortly after O’Neill’s arrest wrote Perez and the chief’s boss and close friend, Mayor Joe Ganim, for an explanation. Perez had said he would respond after consulting with the City Attorney’s office, and a few months ago told DeRienzo a letter was coming.
Perez in Tuesday’s undated letter wrote, “In the confusion of clearing the areas — regretfully — an officer did not realize that Ms. O’Neill was identifying herself as a reporter and was wearing identification.”
“We regret her detainment and apologize for such,” Perez wrote. “In detaining her, it was never our intention to in any way restrain Ms. O’Neill from doing her job, or to prevent her from covering subsequent actions of the police department. Her detention was a mistake made during a commotion at a highly volatile time. … It was completely unintentional, during an extremely contentious, confusing, confrontation when not all persons were acting with good intentions.”
DeRienzo in a statement said O’Neill should have been recognized by department staff and “clearly and repeatedly identified herself as a member of the press.” He also questioned whether O’Neill’s arrest had more to do with “intimidation of a free press and retaliation against a journalist and news outlet” that has been covering problems within the troubled Bridgeport police department.
“The timing of this explanation and the release of documents and video that by law are public information is suspect,” DeRienzo concluded. “It comes after months of delay, and only after a contentious election in which police misconduct was a significant issue.”
DeRienzo was not the only one who spoke out after O’Neill’s arrest. The New England First Amendment Coalition also sent a letter to the chief, but the group’s executive director Justin Silverman said Tuesday they have yet to get a response.
“While an apology is certainly welcome, more important are specific plans to protect press freedoms in the future,” Silverman said. “This letter describes none. The First Amendment doesn’t settle for occasional accommodations. It’s the law — perhaps the most important of them all — and should always be followed. Bridgeport residents and the journalists covering their community deserve to know what, if anything, the department is doing to prevent such a mistake from occurring again.”
The 11 protesters arrested that night were all charged with inciting a riot, interfering with police and second-degree breach of peace. The case went to trial over the summer and was dismissed Oct. 4.
Perez’s letter was released after Hearst Connecticut in a newspaper article last weekend raised questions about the Ganim administration’s failure to respond to repeated requests for controversial police information. Those requests include Internal Affairs reports about the Negron shooting and other incidents, and uniform and cruiser dashboard camera footage of the May 9 incident, including of the treatment of O’Neill.
Ganim, who is seeking re-election, recently faced off in a Sept. 10 primary with fellow Democrat state Senator Marilyn Moore, who had called on the mayor to fire Perez. Ganim defeated Moore, but she is running in November’s general election as a write-in candidate.
O’Neill’s arrest received a lot of out-of-town media coverage and criticism, creating more bad election-year publicity for Ganim, Perez and the police force. The department has been buffeted over the past few years by internal strife, accusations of racism, and probes into the conduct of various officers.