On May 30, photographers from the Seattle Times and local TV stations aimed their cameras at an unruly crowd that had broken off from peaceful protests against police brutality and racial injustice. As the journalists documented the scene in downtown Seattle, the crowd smashed windows, set police cars on fire and looted businesses.
Many of the perpetrators escaped arrest. But the Seattle Police Department had an idea how to try to find them: They demanded all the images shot that day by journalists on the scene.
On Thursday, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee ordered five news organizations to turn over the unpublished material, a decision that editors at the Seattle Times warned would gravely endanger reporters covering other protests.
"The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public," Michele Matassa Flores, Times executive editor, told the paper. "We don't work in concert with government, and it's important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover."
Brian Esler, an attorney representing the Police Department, did not immediately return a message from The Washington Post on Thursday night.
As President Donald Trump prepares to send federal agents to Seattle to confront ongoing demonstrations, an expansion of efforts in Portland, Ore., the judge's ruling adds more tension to simmering protests that have been particularly tense throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The demonstrations in downtown Seattle on May 30 turned particularly destructive. Hundreds of peaceful protesters marched five days after George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis, shutting down Interstate 5 and then taking a stage downtown to denounce police violence.
But at the same time, another group looted stores, launched fireworks at police and threw Molotov cocktails. Five police cars were set on fire, and the vandals stole equipment, including tactical helmets and at least two guns that are still missing, the Times reported.
Police later sent subpoenas to the Times and local stations KIRO, KOMO, KING, and KCPQ demanding all images shot over a 90-minute span in a four-block area downtown. In court, the department argued the raw footage "may be the best evidence available to identify" the suspects.
"The perception that a journalist might be collaborating with police or other public officials poses a very real, physical danger to journalists, particularly when they are covering protests or civil unrest," Danny Gawlowski, Times assistant managing editor, wrote in an affidavit.
Attorneys representing the media outlets also argued that the police's request violates Washington state's journalism shield law, which, in many cases, prevents the government from demanding source material from reporters and photographers. Since police didn't actually know what other images had been captured that day, they have no way of knowing whether the material would actually help solve their case, attorney Eric Stahl argued in court filings.
But at a Thursday morning hearing, a Seattle police detective testified that the department hit a dead end after arresting two suspects, and that the media's images were the only other evidence that might help find other perpetrators, the Times reported.
Lee sided with the police. The judge found that the images are "highly material and relevant" and "critical or necessary" to solving the case, thus skirting the shield law's protections. He did place limits on police, according to the Times, ruling that they could only use the photos and video to identify suspects who burned the police car and stole guns -- not those involved in other more minor vandalism or looting. He also protected the reporters' cellphone videos and photos.
The paper is discussing whether to appeal, Flores said.