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Police Say They’ll Investigate Violence Against VPM Reporter

Line of police officers holding pepper spray advance down street in Richmond
A line of Richmond Police officers advance through downtown Richmond on Sunday night (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Richmond Police Department is conducting an internal audit into interactions between police and reporters after a VPM journalist reported a violent response by police.

But Police Chief Will Smith characterized the incident as an accident, and the department did not provide any details on if the officer would be held accountable. 

VPM reporter Roberto Roldan was pepper-sprayed and tackled by separate Richmond police officers after identifying himself as a reporter covering Sunday night’s protests and curfew enforcement.

In a press conference on Monday, Smith said the officer didn’t mean to hit Roldan.

“The person who was running was actually running, and sadly is not as agile as we would like,” Smith said. “We weren’t throwing [Roldan] to the ground to effect arrest. It was really in a very tense moment and we were trying to effect other things.”

Roldan said he can’t know what was going on in the officer’s head.

“But I will certainly say the tackle felt intentional,” Roldan said.

Mayor Levar Stoney called Roldan to apologize on Sunday night. In a Tweet Monday morning, Stoney called the incident “absolutely unacceptable” and said it would be investigated.

The internal audit will cover several other brushes between police and reporters, according to Jim Nolan, a spokesman for the mayor.

Several reporters said they were teargassed, though Smith said they had not been targeted. Olivia Ugino, a reporter with NBC 12, Tweeted a video of police drawing guns on her and screaming “Get on the ground!” as she exited a car to cover arrests of protestors. In a separate incident , Ugino said an officer reached inside her car and grabbed her as she attempted to shoot video.

Gene Lepley, a spokesman for RPD, did not respond to most questions posed by VPM about the incident beyond saying the case had been assigned to an officer for review.

Nolan said he believed the results of the investigation would be shared with Roldan.

Roldan was wearing a reflective vest when he approached a line of officers and clearly identified himself as a reporter. Roldan said he was trying to move behind the police line to avoid being confused as a protestor.

But he said one officer pepper-sprayed him, and another tackled him to the ground. VPM photojournalist Crixell Matthews was also pepper-sprayed.

“It burns pretty bad,” Roldan said. “If anything, I would say the teargas was worse.”

In a statement released Monday, Virginia Press Association executive director Betsy Edwards condemned the use of force against reporters covering the Richmond protestors.

“The First Amendment protects newsgathering and prohibits the government from using police power to interfere with press freedoms,” Edwards said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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