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Press Freedom Groups Alarmed by Police Attacks on Journalists

Police officer
A police officer photographed during a protest on the night of May 31. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Student Press Law Center is calling on Mayor Levar Stoney and the Richmond Police Department to discipline police officers who have cracked down on reporters during recent Black Lives Matter protests.

In a letter, the group also calls on RPD to meet with local news organizations to discuss police treatment of journalists in the field. RPD Chief Gerald Smith first proposed this dialogue between police and media in late July.

“We are aware that two attempts at meetings between representatives of local news organizations and the Richmond Police Department have been scheduled – with no provision for remote participation – and then canceled,” the letter reads. “At a time when all government meetings are moving online, there is no excuse for continuing to delay this time-sensitive conversation.”

The letter raises concerns about possible First Amendment violations, citing numerous cases of excessive police force against reporters. This includes an incident in May where VPM reporter Roberto Roldan was pepper sprayed by police, an incident which is still under an internal investigation.

It also cites an incident where an NBC 12 reporter was pulled out of her vehicle by police and told to get on the ground, before being ordered to leave the scene. 

The letter also mentions numerous occasions where journalists for The Commonwealth Times -- the student-led newspaper for Virginia Commonwealth University -- were pepper sprayed and shoved by RPD officers.

The letter is co-signed by the Virginia Press Association, the College Media Association and Virginia’s Society of Professional Journalists, among other groups, as well as by faculty from the VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture.

“The eyes of the country are upon Richmond. Since the abuse of journalists has now become a repeated practice, it is essential for their safety that you set down ‘bright lines’ that officers may not cross, under penalty of swift and certain disciplinary action,” the letter reads.

VPM was unable to get a response from Stoney’s office or the RPD by the time of publication.

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