Full Court Press

Posted January 28, 2010 in Feature Story

Sure, no one expects cops to love reporters, but freedom of the press seems to have taken a really bad turn when the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department apparently stopped issuing press passes, first to one journalist, then to all, saying they were being misused by deadbeat writers crashing local concerts. But—considering that both the NYPD and President Obama were recently accused of being biased against specific news organizations, possibly due to political/partisan reasons—what’s really going on here? Why is indie journalism and the public’s right to know getting a smack to the face? It all started with an Obama T-shirt, as writer Tommy A. Purvis explains . . . 


It was the Summer of Hope and I was a believer, so the backfire that came on, and after, that day was understood. The potential to offend did cross my mind but that was not my intention. I had just happened to find myself near the Sheriff’s headquarters and decided to drop in, and replace a recently lost press pass. My fingerprints were on file and the annual criminal background check was also in place. It should have only taken a few minutes. 


I announced myself into a wall speaker and the security doors that lead to public affairs buzzed open. I wore a black T-shirt with street artist Shepard Fairey’s graphic of then-Sen. Barack Obama and the word “PROGRESS.” The Democratic National Convention was still a few weeks away, but the piece was already iconic of the movement. 


It went viral the week before Super Tuesday when a few hundred were pasted around Los Angeles. A month later it was printed on fliers to promote rallies by resident in rural Texas towns for the primary, and after the election the Smithsonian commissioned it for the Presidential Inauguration.


But today, the art and a suit with a badge and a gun would collide.


He stood behind a counter. I did not speak. I caught his attention as he looked up from the Senator’s eyes and I could sense his disapproval. I put my head back down to finish paperwork, and he walked inside a cubicle and started a loud conversation laced with Fox News analysis about my candidate of choice. I tuned out the chatter. 


A few weeks later I received a letter from the Sheriff:


September 9, 2008


Mr. Tommy A. Purvis,


Thank you for your application for a Press Pass with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. 


Your application has been received and reviewed. Unfortunately, it has been found that not all the requirements for press credentials from the Sheriff’s Department have been met. Applicants must demonstrate a history of seeking crime-related information from the Department on a regular basis and need to be at a crime scene in San Bernardino County.”


You are welcome to apply again in the future, at such time when the requirements can be fulfilled. If you have any questions, please contact the Public Affairs Division. 


Dave Phelps, Sergeant

Public Affairs Division



The state Appellate court case Los Angeles Free Press, Inc., v. City of Los Angeles was filed after the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff denied press passes to reporters from the weekly newspaper. 


The Los Angeles Free Press was a founding member of the Underground Press Syndicate, a network of counterculture newspapers that formed in the late ’60s. The voice of the anti-war movement, the Free Press had dedicated beats for “civil riots, peace demonstrations and conflicts between the individual and the state.” 


The court found that the police agencies had denied press passes to the weekly reporters “because the publication was not regularly engaged in the gathering and reporting of spot, hardcore police beat and fire news.” In the eyes of the court the Free Press failed to prove that the police agencies’ requirements were “arbitrarily and discriminatorily applied” against the paper “because of its editorial policy.” 


Sergeant Phelps cited the 40-year-old case during the phone conversation we had after the rejection letter came. I was told my application was flagged due to a surge of deadbeat journalists that crash backstage at concerts, and roam the sidelines of sporting events in the IE. Although I was not a perpetrator, in the review process, it was discovered that a deputy had never catalogued me at a crime scene. 


The letter and phone conversation were the first times that I had heard of a “crime scene criteria” from the agency. I had held credentials from the Department for three consecutive years. I decided to do more research and left two voicemails with questions for the Sergeant. 


They did not get returned. 


I stopped by Public Affairs the week before Christmas and asked to speak with the sergeant about the new requirements. He was not available. A lieutenant was free for a short meeting and he informed me that all applicants were now required to report from three San Bernardino County Sheriff police lines—over a one-year period—to be considered for a press pass. 


The new policy was not made available in writing. Before I left, I told the lieutenant that journalism was the only job protected in the Constitution and asked him if I was targeted for my political affiliation. He told me it was time for me to leave and to have a nice day. I told him thanks and that I would be back.  



In a recent case, the First Amendment and the New York Police Department collided. The agency came under scrutiny for cherry picking press pass applicants when a lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court in Manhattan. The plaintiffs—a trio of bloggers—had been denied press passes because they were not employed by a legitimate news organization. 


One of the bloggers, Rafael Martinez Alequin, published The Brooklyn Free Press for almost 20 years. He later launched The New York City Free Press online. The lawsuit stated that his, and the other, press passes were taken in 2007 “with little explanation or opportunity for appeal.” It argued that the system the NYPD had for issuing press passes was “inconsistent and constitutionally flawed.”


Among other allegations, the suit states that Alequin—a longtime critic of Mayor Michael Bloomberg—was barred from news conferences at City Hall after his application was denied because he lacked a media credential. 


Before the case went to trial the city backtracked and issued the bloggers press passes.  



The Safety Employees Benefit Association is the union that represents the interests of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies. The SEBA website states their mission is “to protect and promote the well-being and image of its members” and lists “political action to promote the goals of the association” as one of its key objectives. 


Serving in this capacity for 64 years, the union has built up a powerful political action committee. In the 2008 election for statewide offices SEBA-PAC endorsements and money went to five victorious candidates. All of them were middle-aged Republican males. 


On the county level, the association contributed $300,000 toward the candidacy of 3rd District Supervisor Neil Derry. Last March, the supervisor tapped Joseph Turner to serve as his special projects coordinator. Turner is the founder of Save Our State, a group identified as an “anti-immigrant hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 


The Anti-Defamation League found the phrase “Bring your bats, fellas. If we are lucky, we are gonna need them. PING!” as one of the signature lines on the Save Our State web forum. In the past the group has held rallies at day labor centers with neo-Nazis in attendance. In November saveourstate.org posted the message “forum is closed indefinitely.” The header still reads “Our Land…Our Fight!”


Supervisor Derry noted Turner’s exceptional writing skills as one of the reasons he handpicked Turner from a pool of 20 applicants. The board approved of the decision in a 4-0 vote, with one abstention, four days after the selection was made.


Last October, in a SEBA organized panel, candidates to replace retiring Sheriff Gary Penrod were asked, “What are your thoughts on creating a ‘tent city jail’ like that created by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona?” And later, “Illegal immigration is a statewide issue. Do you have a plan of action to address this problem?” Technical difficulties prevent the answer of either candidate from being heard on audio recordings of the event.


The Maricopa County Sheriff is currently being investigated by the Department of Justice for the immigration sweeps it does in Latino neighborhoods. Sheriff’s officials detain undocumented workers in tent cities in the Arizona desert before handing them over to federal authorities for deportation.  


SEBA did endorse Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) for Congress in the last election but labels him as a Republican on their website. 



I went back to Public Affairs the last week of April. This time I wrote down “blogger” as one of my positions on the press pass application and provided a web address with postings and news photos. I did not see the sergeant during the visit and was helped by a secretary. The second rejection letter was dated May 6. It was the same template as the first, but this time it was signed by Lt. Rick Ells. 


I did not call back for an explanation or plan another office visit as a follow-up. 



On May 14, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was called to a nonviolent protest in an unincorporated area near Fontana. Organizers with Warehouse Workers United, a workers’ rights group, had assembled 200 supporters outside a Walmart distribution center. A group of seven activists blocked the main entrance in and out of property. 


A large banner with the Walmart logo read “Always Union Busting. Always.”


Sgt. Dave Phelps, gang taskforce members and an inmate bus were among a strong police presence that responded to the scene. Broadcast and print media were led to the location from a local truck stop with the group’s spokesperson. Since I was left without a press pass, I chose to wait for events to unfold and hung around the periphery of the action. 


When the arrests went down, I walked behind the police lines and took photos without incident. I did not go on the record with the sergeant, but we did make eye contact. 


The activists were released in 18 hours.  



The May 28 action the Warehouse Workers United planned was bold. An intersection in the heart of the warehouse district would be occupied during rush hour traffic with a few hundred protesters and a forklift. The media was invited to observe the final preparations and caravan with the group to the event.


The police presence was obvious through each jurisdiction we passed. I was not sure what law enforcement agency would respond to the “crime scene” but anticipated a multi-agency effort. The intersection of Etiwanda and Van Buren was in Riverside County but within walking distance of the San Bernardino County line. 


I decided to post up in the middle of the action and do some reporting until law enforcement arrived to clear it. ABC-7 and Telemundo were doing live shots from the perimeter. Print reporters and photographers from the local dailies were there too. I was left without a press pass to identify myself from the protesters, but was the only person in the intersection wearing a tie and slacks. Plus, I was taking pictures with a professional camera. 


Initially, the mood was festive. Protesters surrounded the activists who had linked themselves around the freshly painted forklift. Some shouted to drum beats and others danced. One person laid down in front a car that attempted to roll slowly into the crosswalk. Others held signs with face shots of warehouse workers and the phrase “Invisible No More.” 


The pressure on the group grew stronger as the lines of traffic got longer. A pickup broke through after 15 minutes and when it exited the east side of the intersection two protesters were in the bed. I ran behind the scene for several hundred feet before the truck stopped. 


The driver exited and the fight was on. 


I posted myself 10 feet away to take photos. A deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department came from behind me. He was fluid in his actions. The stream of pepper spray he released was right on target. It went from the middle of my forehead and traced around the brow of my right eye. I tried to recover and take some images as he sprayed the protesters, and then the driver, but they did not turn out. 


Ten activists were arrested and released later in the evening. 



I called the lieutenant on June 17 to confirm the police line contacts. The week after the pepper spray incident, I approached San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Arce from the labor detail at a Central Labor Committee meeting. He recognized me from the Riverside County event and called me by name before I introduced myself. 


The lieutenant told me that that the May 28 incident was irrelevant even if a deputy was present. It did not count because the police line was not in county lines. He also told me to avoid confrontations with law enforcement at future police lines and I will not be pepper sprayed again. A press pass would not have protected me. 


And besides, he said, I was not even a “real” journalist so it did not matter. He asked when the last time I was even published. I directed him to “Shock to the System,” [Vol. 4, Issue 10] my article for the Weekly from last year about the struggle of the warehouse workers trying to organize a union, a feature still available at www.ieweekly.com


I heard him clicking away on a keyboard as he searched for the article. He found it and hung up. 



Lt. Ells greeted me at the Public Affairs counter on Sept. 23. I asked for another application for a press pass and he denied me one. I told him that I met all the criteria as defined in the Department’s handout for the media. At least in the one the secretary gave to me in April the last time I had applied. 


Plus, I had been at two police lines since with a sheriff’s deputy present and that caveat was not printed anywhere in the guidelines. 


It was an irrelevant effort though because the Board of Chiefs had decided to stop issuing press passes on July 13. The threat of lawsuits from applicants and county employees who had been awarded passes in a snafu contributed to the decision. I asked for the new policy from the Board of Chiefs in writing.


It was denied too. 


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