After Dropping Charges, Prosecutor Faults NJ Reporter for Protest Arrest
ASBURY PARK — Police officers who arrested an Asbury Park Press reporter following an anti-racism demonstration last month have been cleared of wrongdoing after investigators determined that officers innocently mistook the journalist for a protester after curfew.
Gustavo Martínez was live-streaming the chaotic events on the night of June 1 after an 8 p.m. curfew, which the city expressly did not apply to essential workers or members of the media. Hours earlier, thousands had participated in a demonstration and several hundred lingered following the curfew, police said.
Police eventually arrested Martínez and charged him with failure to obey an order to disperse. The charge was dropped the next day when prosecutors realized he was a journalist.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal immediately called for an investigation into the arrest.
"Because in America, we don't lock up reporters for doing their job," Grewal said at the time.
But in a five-page report released Wednesday, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office says that police did not target Martínez "because he was a reporter or in an effort to prevent him from performing his job as a member of the press.
"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," the report says.
Martinez's attorney slammed the report's conclusions and editor of the Asbury Park Press called the investigation a "whitewash."
Grewal, who had apologized for the reporter's arrest, on Wednesday announced the creation of a working group to "address critical issues of safety, freedom of the press, and free speech during protests."
Grewal, echoing some of the conclusions of the Monmouth investigation — which his office reviewed and supported — said "public demonstrations can quickly become chaotic, presenting challenges for law enforcement officers attempting to maintain order with limited or partial information."
"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."
Martínez was wearing his State Police-sanctioned press badge on a lanyard around his neck but, the report points out, it was hanging backward so that the word "PRESS" could not readily be seen.
Martínez also was not wearing any reflective vest or jacket with the word "PRESS," as some other journalists had. Bodycam footage shows him wearing a dark sweatshirt and dark jeans, goggles, a mask, a black helmet and a gray backpack.
The report says that police did not hear Martínez identify himself as a reporter while he was being arrested.
Not mentioned in the report — but caught on camera — were what police said to Martinzez during his arrest.
"He wants to be caught. F—k ‘em. He's the problem. You gotta go," an arresting officer was caught on video saying about Martínez.
"I'm not going to keep on playing with these jokers," the officer said as several officers surround Martínez Contreras. "Shut your mouth," another officer is heard saying.
Detectives who later watched bodycam recordings of the arrest could not clearly make out what the masked Martínez Contreras was telling officers, the report says. "I am a [inaudible]," the report quotes the reporter as saying.
The report says that Martínez did not identify himself as a reporter to the three officers who transported him to Belmar until an officer at the station noticed his press badge and asked him whether he worked for the Asbury Park Press.
The report says that while the investigation's conclusion "in no way seeks to diminish what must have been an unpleasant experience for Martinez ... [he] was not outfitted with the gear or resources to clearly make his identity known to law enforcement officers that night."
"Although his credentials may have been appropriate and identifiable when seeking entry to a public building during daylight hours, in combination with this attire, at night in poorly lit areas, they were not sufficient."
Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni left open the possibility that Martínez may not have tried to identify himself.
"One can speculate on why no such disclosure was made but honestly this office's role is not to speculate on that. It's really not the appropriate forum. I'll leave that to the public and the media to decide," Gramiccioni told the Townsquare News Network.
But the reporter's attorney, Shireen Barday, said Wednesday that the report "confirmed that Mr. Martinez’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was tackled, arrested, detained and jailed while reporting the news at Asbury Park’s Black Lives Matter protest."
"While Monmouth County self-servingly concludes the actions of police were 'not an intentional infringement' of Mr. Martinez’s constitutional rights, Mr. Martinez was wearing a law enforcement-issued press badge when he was tackled, repeatedly identified himself to police as a reporter, was recording an incident of police violence against two teenagers when police targeted him and, remarkably, two of the officers happened to have their body cams turned off the whole time," Barday said.
In addition to the investigative report, prosecutors also released bodycam footage of the reporter's arrest and of police's interaction with him before the arrest. The report acknowledges that two officers violated policy by not turning on their cameras but that "in no way limited the ability of the investigative team to reach these conclusions."
The investigation included interviews with 21 people, including 14 law officers and Martinez.
Gramiccioni said no complaint was filed against the arresting officer.
The Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability reviewed the investigation and agreed with its findings and conclusions, according to Grammicioni.
Caution: The embedded video below includes images of violence and profanity.