FERGUSON, Mo. – As police broke up protests in Ferguson late Wednesday night, they also turned their tactics on local and national television news crews.
Two KSDK-TV photojournalists and reporter Elizabeth Matthews were filing a story about the cancellation of school in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. Matthews said they reported from a Ferguson neighborhood just outside a perimeter established by police. The crew was working out of a SUV and a larger "live" van. At least one other TV crew from Al Jazeera America was also in the neighborhood working from a mini-van.
Shortly after 9 p.m., police in riot gear began dispersing demonstrators about a quarter of a mile from the crew's location. Matthews said as protesters fled the area they ran through the neighborhood about two or three at a time for a total of no more than 20.
One of the photojournalists walked to the intersection of Highmont and West Florissant where he documented what appeared to be an altercation between police and an individual they were detaining along West Florissant. About 15 seconds into his video recording, bright lights can be seen shining at his position. Approximately 30 seconds later, as he continues to record video the sound of an air rifle firing can be heard followed by a "thud."
According to the 23-year veteran of television news, a "bean bag round" hit his camera equipment, and he retreated back to his original position on Highmont.
Both photojournalists and Matthews say police never told them to leave the area prior to this incident.
Approximately five to 10 minutes later, video recorded by the other photojournalist shows police at the intersection of Highmont and West Florissant fire what appears to be tear gas at the Al Jazeera America crew station nearby. The crew of three people is set up with television lights and a camera in front of their mini-van. The video shows the apparent tear gas billowing smoke directly in front of them. The KSDK crew says the canister hit the Al Jazeera America van.
The KSDK crew says the Al Jazeera America crew was yelling, "We're the press." The Al Jazeera America crew can be seen running away from the van on video. Then two police officers can be seen taking down the crew's television lights and tilting the TV camera toward the ground.
From there, the KSDK crew says police approached them with "guns drawn." Matthews says she and one photojournalist were in the SUV with their hands up and the third member of their crew got down on his knees in front of the SUV and raised his hand – telling police he was with the press.
Matthews says police told them they received a call that members of the media were in danger and in need of assistance. All three members of the KSDK crew say they were never in danger and never asked for assistance.
At this point, the video shows still photographers gathered around the KSDK crew. Police tell the journalists to follow them out of the neighborhood when one person is heard saying "We're OK here." Another voice says "We don't want you here. Somebody's going to get hurt. We don't want to see you guys get hurt." The KSDK crew says that is the voice of a police officer.
The KSDK crew says the officers directed them out of the neighborhood and they complied.
KSDK has called the St. Louis County police for comment, which has not yet been returned.
On Thursday afternoon, the St. Charles County Regional SWAT Team released this statement:
"Over the last few days, the St. Charles County Regional SWAT Team has assisted in Ferguson at the request of the St. Louis County Police Department to help respond to looting and for protection of the property of Ferguson citizens and businesses. On Wednesday, August 13th, video footage was taken of St. Charles County SWAT officers handling media camera equipment. The position of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department is that the media has the right to cover these events and supports the freedom of the press, and the SWAT Team has not been any part of attempting to prevent media coverage. In fact, last night the SWAT Team officers were assisting the media in moving their camera equipment and media personnel to a safer area with their consent so that they could continue to cover the event. The Sheriff has notified St. Louis County Police that the St. Charles County Regional SWAT Team is available to protect life and property but does not have a continued role in crowd control during this time of civil protest."