For re­porter, hand­cuffs not part of the deal

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tara O’Neill

The last thing I wanted was to be­come the sub­ject of a story.

But I spent Fri­day morn­ing an­swer­ing ques­tions from fel­low Con­necti­cut jour­nal­ists. They wanted to know what hap­pened the night be­fore — when I was de­tained and nearly charged by po­lice while do­ing my job.

I’ve worked for the Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia as a break­ing news re­porter since April 2017. My first ma­jor story was the fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of 15-year-old Jayson Ne­gron in Bridge­port on May 9, 2017. I’ve cov­ered just about ev­ery in­ci­dent re­lated to it since then.

Thurs­day night, dur­ing a protest for Ne­gron on the two-year an­niver­sary of his death, 11 peo­ple were ar­rested — peo­ple I’ve come to know over the last two years. I was de­tained.

I was not of­fi­cially ar­rested, ac­cord­ing to Bridge­port of­fi­cials, be­cause I was not charged.

Tell that to the bruises on my wrists from hand­cuffs.

Ear­lier that day, be­tween 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., I cov­ered the protest and me­mo­rial for Ne­gron. Around 8 p.m., things took a turn. There was a con­fronta­tion be­tween po­lice and pro­test­ers. I grabbed my note­book and rushed to the scene, getting there about 8:20 p.m.

Pro­test­ers were back on the street, hold­ing hands in a circle and singing. Soon af­ter, po­lice walked onto Fair­field Av­enue and stood to­gether in a line across the two lanes of traf­fic, fac­ing those gath­ered for Ne­gron. The road had been shut down to traf­fic for sev­eral hours.

I was fac­ing the di­rec­tion of the of­fi­cers when an un­known glass item was thrown to­ward po­lice. I didn’t see who threw it. All I know is that it came from the di­rec­tion of where pro­test­ers were stand­ing.

Po­lice told them they had five min­utes to clear off the street. When time was up, the of­fi­cers started to walk to­ward the pro­test­ers, shout­ing “Off the street!”

Stand­ing on the side­walk, film­ing — well within my rights — I thought I was about to cap­ture footage of pro­test­ers be­ing ar­rested. In­stead, I filmed my­self getting hand­cuffed as I yelled out that I was on a public side­walk and a mem­ber of the press. Later, the of­fi­cer who hand­cuffed me said he hadn’t re­al­ized I was me­dia.

I was pat­ted down on Fair­field Av­enue, put into a po­lice cruiser and taken to book­ing. I wasn’t brought in right away, since a pro­tester was be­ing pro­cessed.

In the min­utes I had to my­self in the cruiser while the of­fi­cer stood out­side, I man­aged to get my phone out of my pocket and used the “Hey Siri” fea­ture to call Matt DeRienzo, the vice pres­i­dent of news and digital con­text for Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia. It was nearly 9 p.m. He told me he’d make some calls and fig­ure out what was go­ing on.

In book­ing, I was taken into an of­fice by a deputy chief and two of­fi­cers, where I was told I’d be re­leased on a writ­ten prom­ise to appear — mean­ing I would be charged. I was never told what the charge would be. Fool­ishly, I didn’t ask. I ex­pected it would all be ex­plained later. At that point, I was able to make some su­per­vised phone calls to my ed­i­tors on speak­er­phone.

Af­ter the calls, the hand­cuffs were re­moved.

I was taken to an­other area of book­ing, where I was more thor­oughly pat­ted down. My be­long­ings were taken and writ­ten down on a “pris­oner in­ven­tory sheet” be­fore be­ing put into a bag and sealed.

A few min­utes later, I was all set to be pro­cessed. In­stead, I was told I was “unar­rested” and would be es­corted out of book­ing. It was around 9:30 p.m. I was es­corted out and headed right for my news­room.

Look­ing back at what hap­pened, I’m frus­trated to know that there might not have been any­thing I could have done to pre­vent it — other than not show­ing up and do­ing my job.

De­spite of­fi­cial state­ments in­di­cat­ing I was wear­ing “plain clothes,” it’s worth not­ing that mem­bers of the me­dia don’t often wear uni­forms.

Thurs­day night, I was dressed sim­i­larly to how I’ve been dressed cov­er­ing other protests and at crime scenes in Bridge­port and I’ve never been de­tained be­fore. When I was cuffed, I was wear­ing the press badge I wear ev­ery day I’m at work — with a photo of me, my name and “Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia group” on it.

What I know now is I never want to hear about this hap­pen­ing to an­other re­porter.

I hope this in­ci­dent gets more than just head­lines and sto­ries that fade af­ter a few days. I hope it gets more peo­ple to talk about free­dom of press, and about the need for po­lice to re­spect ev­ery­one’s rights.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia / Tara O'Neill

Po­lice of­fi­cers line Fair­field Av­enue in Bridge­port on Thurs­day night dur­ing a protest mark­ing the two-year an­niver­sary of the fa­tal Bridge­port po­lice shoot­ing of 15-year-old Jayson Ne­gron. Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia re­porter Tara O’Neill was de­tained while cov­er­ing the event.

Tara O’Neill

Chris­tian Abra­ham / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

A heavy po­lice pres­ence was on hand as activists and friends of Jayson Ne­gron held a vigil near the Wal­greens on Fair­field Av­enue in Bridge­port on Thurs­day.

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