Investigation Reveals Officers Reasonably Believed Reporter Was a Protester

A comprehensive internal affairs investigation into the June 1 arrest of Asbury Park Press reporter Gustavo Martinez has determined that arresting officers had no knowledge they were apprehending a reporter, said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.

The investigation consisted of the interviews of 21 people, including 14 law enforcement officers and Martinez, and review of body worn camera footage and social media footage captured during the protest. The investigation revealed that the officers who arrested Martinez reasonably believed he was one of the protesters who failed to disperse, despite repeated orders to do so, more than two hours after the expiration of a city-wide curfew.

“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,” Gramiccioni said..

On June 1 at 5 p..m., a peaceful protest occurred in Asbury Park. Like many nationwide, the protest occurred in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died while being arrested by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. One hour before the protest was scheduled to take place, the city issued a curfew commencing at 8 p.m. The Emergency Proclamation establishing the protest stated the curfew was being issued because many of the nationwide protests had turned violent. The Emergency Proclamation further indicated that credentialed members of the media were exempt from the city-wide curfew. See Exhibit 1.

The protest was peaceful for the majority of the night. While exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that several thousand people were present at the height of the protest.

The prosecutor’s office said:

“This investigation was undertaken not because of any direct complaint filed against any individual officer, but due to a number of broader citizen inquiries into the arrest of a journalist the night of the protest. To date, Martinez has not filed a formal complaint against any of the officers involved with either our Office or the Asbury Park Police Department. Because the officers involved are exonerated, their identities are not disclosed. Moreover, since the conduct of the officers was reasonable and warrants no discipline, it would not fall under the purview of AG Directive 2020-5 dictating the public disclosure of the identities of officer who commit serious disciplinary violations.

“At 10 p.m., police officers repeatedly issued verbal orders to protesters via loudspeaker to disburse and leave the area due to the curfew. Most people still lingering in Asbury Park after the protest ended heeded requests to disperse the area in compliance with the curfew.
Violations of Curfew Order

“Approximately 200 people refused to comply with officers’ requests to disburse and leave the area as mandated by the 8 p.m. curfew. Officers continued to use public address systems in patrol cars and were giving verbal orders imploring observance of the curfew. In contrast to the peaceful protesters who filled the streets earlier in the evening, multiple accounts paint a far different landscape of those who remained past curfew. Many of the remaining protesters were taunting and threatening officers, were unruly, and some threw water in officers’ faces.

“By approximately 10:16 p.m., the scene had shifted drastically from the earlier peaceful protest to what officers described as a “riot.” Protesters began throwing large rocks, some the size of baseballs, and other objects at officers and at their police vehicles. Police in riot gear were using their shields to protect themselves and fellow officers who were in basic uniforms without enhanced protection. All of the officers who were interviewed described the scene in the same manner as “nerve-wracking,” “dangerous,” “chaotic,” “violent,” and “very scary.” During his interview with our office, Martinez similarly described the scene as “chaotic” and full of “commotion.” At least two officers required medical attention for injuries sustained from the projectiles being thrown by the crowd, one received stitches in his chin due to a laceration and the most seriously injured officer sustained a skull fracture after being hit in the face with a rock.

Press Presence at the Protest & After Curfew

“Given the large number of people participating in the Asbury Park protest, as well as the international attention on protests following the death of George Floyd, it is not surprising that the event was heavily covered by members of the press from numerous media outlets. Notably, not all journalists present were readily identifiable as members of the press. While some journalists are seen on BWC and cell phone footage that evening wearing fluorescent vests emboldened with the word “PRESS” visible to all and/or were also carrying large cameras consistent with what news outlets use, not all journalists were easily recognizable as members of the press. Martinez, unfortunately, was one such journalist whose affiliation with a news organization was extremely difficult to discern.

“In light of the specific allegations made that necessitated this review – that Martinez was arrested because he was a journalist – it is relevant and necessary to examine whether his profession as a reporter covering this event was directly linked in any manner to his arrest. Martinez told detectives conducting this review that his employer, the APP, assigned him to cover the post-curfew protest from 8:00 p.m. onward. Martinez is observed in BWC footage that night wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans. He was also wearing goggles, a mask, a black helmet and a gray backpack.

“Martinez wore a lanyard around his neck with his press credentials – about the size of a deck of playing cards – that had his picture and the words ‘PRESS’ on one side, and the other side blank with no writing on the back. Martinez was filming the event on his cell phone. When asked by detectives whether his employer provided him with any specific clothing or equipment, Martinez said they did not, but said that his editor did advise him to bring protective gear.

“One such encounter, prior to Martinez’s arrest, shows him engaged in dialogue with one officer who is asking protesters to leave the area. The officer calmly engages Martinez in dialogue, believing him to be a protester. During this encounter, Martinez’s lanyard containing his press credentials is seen hanging backwards with the blank side facing outward.

“Even if the officer deduced from their conversation that Martinez was a member of the press at that earlier point in time, Martinez had contact with multiple police officers later in the evening who were unaware he was a reporter.”

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