“I’ve got to go. I’m being arrested.” (or every time a law enforcement officer violates the rights of the media, a journalist gets their wings)

The joke around the student newsrooms I used to advise was whenever someone called in and said, “I need help,” we would respond with, “The newsroom doesn’t pay bail money…”

So it was kind of a shock when I got this photo from Alex Crowe, a radio journalist who has contributed to the blog on several occasions:

Courtesy of Alex Crowe

With it, he wrote, “Good morning, Vince! Got my journalism wings yesterday.”

Crowe was in Milwaukee, covering a protest over the shooting death of 17-year-old Alvin Cole. Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah killed Cole in February 2020, and on Oct. 7, the Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm announced there would be no charges filed in this case. Mensah had shot and killed two other people over the past five years in the line of duty and had been cleared in both cases.

“I was sent to the Milwaukee County Safety Building to interview protesters and gather pictures and video of the scene while people waited for a decision to be announced,” Crowe said in an email interview. “I witnessed a crowd that was mostly peaceful but became agitated as time went on. The Cole family and their lawyer were inside the Milwaukee County Safety Building for about two hours, and during that time the crowd began to grow and some people became increasingly aggravated as they awaited what they felt would be an unjust outcome.

“Finally, when the Cole family and their lawyer came outside, some protesters shoved a member of the media and pushed his camera off its tripod and onto the concrete. While the family’s lawyer was speaking, several protesters were shouting obscenities forcing some stations to cut the live coverage. Once the lawyer and family members were done speaking, the protesters began to march towards the interstate where several members of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office were waiting to try and prevent people from marching onto the highway.”

(Video courtesy of Alex Crowe)

Crowe followed the protesters to the highway ramp, where protesters were walking around the squad cars meant to limit access to freeway. Some clashed with officers and were subsequently tossed onto the hoods of squad cars. As Crowe and other media representatives took photos and video of these encounters, deputies from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department demanded that they stop following the crowd up the ramp and cease recording.

“There were simply too many people to arrest all at once,” Crowe said. “The protesters kept moving onto the highway. This had happened to me once before, during the protests after the death of George Floyd. During that experience, officers allowed protesters and media onto the highway, calmly stopped traffic and directed protesters and media members off at the next exit. This time, however, as protesters continued onto the interstate, a member of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office turned towards myself and several other media members and ordered us off.”

One officer targeted Crowe, coming up behind him and placing him in handcuffs.

“I was on the phone with my boss when it happened and said ‘I’ve got to go. I’m being arrested,'” Crowe said. “Apparently my boss already knew that, because he was watching a live TV feed of the whole event back in the newsroom. I was able to remain calm because I knew that even if I were to be arrested and brought somewhere, they couldn’t charge me with anything and I would eventually be let go.”

The officer told Crowe to hang up the phone, before he confiscated Crowe’s recording equipment and patted him down for weapons.

“As we were walking, I explained that I was simply doing my job and that he had let the protesters go while targeting me,” Crowe said. “He told me he was sick of the media ‘thinking they can do whatever they want.’ It was at this time that another officer within the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office came over to us and asked which organization I was with. I told him and he ordered the other deputy to take me towards the back of the bank of squad cars, where no other protesters or media members were being held.

“He further instructed the officer holding me to uncuff me, give me my equipment back and let me go without any charges. The first officer begrudgingly did as he was told and let me go… I still don’t know why that single officer decided to go after me and insisted on bringing me away in handcuffs when he knew I was a member of the media.”

Once he was released, Crowe said he collected himself a bit and then went back to work, covering the protest.

“I called my boss to let him know that I was OK, then ran back to the highway area but this time on the other side of the fence, so I wasn’t on the road, I was in the grass on the other side of the highway,” Crowe said. “I found a place where about 20 officers were waiting on bikes to ride onto the highway if needed. I pulled out my equipment and started getting right back to work like nothing had happened.”

As far as advice for student journalists who might find themselves in similar situations, Crowe said knowing he was in the right and keeping his wits about him made a huge difference.

“I’m sure if I had made a big scene, the officers would have brought me downtown just for fun,” he said. “I just tried to remain calm and continually explained that I was a member of the media, that I had equipment in their hands that proved why I was there and that they could call my boss right away and get the whole thing straightened out. I just remained calm because I knew that eventually they would realize that I wasn’t lying and that they would be in a lot of trouble if they went through with processing and arresting a member of the media who was following every order given by officers on the scene. I would just tell students to remain calm and keep explaining who you are and who you’re with.”

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