Monmouth County Prosecutor Office releases Asbury Park bodycam footage from June 1 protest
BELMAR, NJ — Belmar police were not “adequately trained” in protecting the constitutional rights of an Asbury Park Press reporter who was brought to borough headquarters after his arrest during a Black Lives Matter protest in Asbury Park on June 1, according to a federal lawsuit.
In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, reporter Gustavo Martinez claims he was “unlawfully tackled, arrested, detained and jailed by law enforcement while reporting on the police use of force against two teenage protesters whose screams can be heard on the footage (he) recorded that night.”
He is seeking damages related to what he alleges are violations of his free speech and free press rights in the suit against Asbury Park, Monmouth County, Belmar, Asbury Park Police Capt. Amir Bercovicz and 14 unnamed officers.
Click here for a copy of the lawsuit.
“A press badge should not be a bullseye. Reporters should not be in danger of violence or arrest at the hands of the police seeking to silence their reports on public protests — especially where those reports cover police violence against civilians protesting peacefully against police misconduct,” the lawsuit states. “On June 1, 2020, Gustavo Martínez, a seasoned reporter with more than 15 years of experience reporting on political protests, became the newest reporter to find himself in the crosshairs of police censorship.”
Although Martinez said he repeatedly told police he was a reporter and showed a “brightly colored press badges on a lanyard around his neck all night,” he was arrested and transported with others placed under arrest to Belmar police headquarters to be processed.
During his processing, a Belmar police officer taking his belongings noticed the press badges dangling from his neck, according to the lawsuit. “The officer asked Mr. Martínez whether he was a reporter. Mr. Martínez responded, now for the third time following his arrest, “Yes, I’m a reporter.” That same officer took his press badges and put them with the rest of Mr. Martínez’s belongings before escorting him to his cell for the night.
“From the cell, Mr. Martínez asked the local officers why he had been arrested, but they said only that he was being held for the Asbury Park police. He asked when he would be let out, but the officers did not know or did not want to tell him. They also did not have (or at least, were not willing to share) any information about the charges pending against him,” the suit stated.
When Martinez was released in the early morning hours of June 2, he was given a summons for failure to obey an order to disperse after a citywide curfew expired following the protest. The violation was dropped later that day by Asbury Park, after his identification as a reporter was confirmed, according to the dismissal document.
On June 8, an investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office determined that officers who arrested Martinez — and maintained they did not see his press badge — had no knowledge they were apprehending a reporter.
"Martinez was not arrested because he was a reporter or in an effort to prevent him from performing his job as a member of the press, according to the investigation's findings. "Rather, Martinez was arrested because police officers believed him to be a protester who had disobeyed numerous orders to disperse more than two hours after the expiration of the curfew. The officers’ beliefs, under the circumstances, were reasonable."
“We fully support and embrace the First Amendment protections that journalists’ have to report the news. Our investigative findings are in no way inconsistent with those important constitutional safeguards,” said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni in the announcement of findings, which consisted of interviews of 21 people, including 14 law enforcement officers and Martinez, and review of Asbury Park police bodycam footage and social media footage captured during the protest.
"In this case, Martinez was not recognizable to officers at the protest as a reporter due, in large part to his attire and the absence of clearly identifiable press credentials. This is especially apparent when compared to the other journalists seen on (body-worn camera) footage that night wearing bright neon vests clearly identifying them as reporters," the findings state. "This conclusion in no way seeks to diminish what must have been an unpleasant experience for Martinez. However, in light of what is seemingly standard protocols for journalists covering public protests, and what was exhibited by the majority of journalists from other news outlets covering the event, Martinez was not outfitted with the gear or resources to clearly make his identity known to law enforcement officers that night."
N.J. Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) agreed with the findings, which the lawsuit states were “replete with inconsistencies and contradictions.”
Martinez claims his arrest and detention were unreasonable and unlawful and his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and that it was “caused by the failure of the City of Asbury Park, Monmouth County and the Borough of Belmar to adequately train or supervise their officers.”
“There must be a reform in policing policy to prevent further unwarranted arrest, harassment or violence against journalists reporting on police activity," according to the lawsuit.
Martínez is seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and prejudgment interest in an amount to be proven at trial in his case against Asbury Park, Monmouth County He also is seeking a trial by jury.
On the same day that the findings were released, N.J.Attorney General Gurbir Grewel announced the creation of a working group including law enforcement leaders, journalists and civil rights advocates to address critical issues of safety, freedom of the press, and free speech during protests in New Jersey.
“The freedom of the press to cover matters of public interest is essential,” said Attorney General Grewal. “This bedrock principle is especially important during protests and other mass gatherings, when reporters have both the right and the responsibility to cover these events.”
“At the same time, we recognize that public demonstrations can quickly become chaotic, presenting challenges for law enforcement officers attempting to maintain order with limited or partial information,” continued Attorney General Grewal. “By bringing together representatives of law enforcement and the media, we hope to develop clear guidelines that will help both reporters and officers during such situations going forward.”
Below is bodycam footage taken from the Asbury Park police during the part of the protest involving Martinez:
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