Cops go after the press

Pub date September 13, 2011

EDITORIAL The BART Board and the new general manager, Grace Crunican, have become so clueless it’s almost mind-boggling. For weeks, demonstrators have been taking to the BART stations to complain about a policy that never should have been in place (the shutoff of cell phone service during an earlier demonstration). The response of the BART Police (and, unfortunately, the San Francisco Police Department) has been so heavy handed and out of scale that it’s just making the situation worse.

For starters, BART could have easily avoided most of the trouble if the agency had simply apologized for cutting off phone service and instituted a policy to ensure that it would never happen again. And the new civilian police auditor can go a long way to establishing public credibility by expediting review of the shooting of Charles Hill and releasing a report quickly.

But BART is doing nothing but further agitating the protesters — and the events of Sept. 8 were a case in point.

The BART Police, with the help of the SFPD, began arresting people who were doing nothing but protesting in an area that BART had previously said would be open for demonstrations. The activists were peaceful — loud at times, but peaceful. And the police had nothing to charge them with except an old state statute that bars interference with the operation of a railroad.

The arrests came without warning — as Rebecca Bowe reported on, the police never declared an unlawful assembly, never warned protesters that they would be arrested if they didn’t leave and never followed normal, proper, legal procedures.

Then the cops went after the press. Reporters who were wearing passes issued by the SFPD were told to line up and present their credentials — at which point the San Francisco cops confiscated the press passes. That left reporters in a bind — if they stayed around to continue to cover the events, they would be subject to arrest. If they left, they’d miss the story — which may have been exactly what BART had in mind.

The episode is just the latest evidence that the BART police lack the training and experience to handle difficult situations. Crunican needs to get a handle on this immediately — and the BART Board, which has been far too hands-off when it comes to police abuse, needs to demand tighter procedures and more direct and effective discipline for the subway system cops.

The SFPD brass knows better than this — and while some officers privately say that detaining the press was a mistake, Chief Greg Suhr has been silent on the issue. He needs to speak out, now — apologize to the reporters and announce a policy change that strictly limits the ability of officers to arrest or detail credentialed journalists (and that bars the confiscation of press passes in all but the most unusual circumstances).

Meanwhile, the incident raises again a question the Society of Professional Journalists, and San Francisco officials, ought to be taking up: Why are the cops the ones who issue credentials for reporters?