An Iowa journalist covering a protest for racial justice was blinded when a police officer shot pepper spray in her face, and jailed for hours, despite telling the officer repeatedly that she was just doing her job, according to video played at the reporter’s trial.
Body camera video captured by Des Moines Police Sgt. Natale Chiodo showed Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri in custody on May 31, 2020, her eyes burning from pepper spray. She said she was with the newspaper and asked Officer Luke Wilson why he arrested her, adding that she was in pain and could not see.
“This is my job,” Sahouri says on the video. “I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist.”
Sahouri’s defense played the video for jurors on the second day of a trial in which Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The prosecution has drawn widespread criticism from media and human rights advocates, who say that the charges are an attack on press freedom and unwarranted. The pair face fines and potentially even jail time, if convicted.
Officer Wilson testified Tuesday that he failed to record the arrest on his body camera and did not notify a supervisor as required by department policy. But Chiodo captured the scene on his body camera, shortly after Wilson detained Sahouri. Chiodo said he did not arrest a second Register reporter who was nearby because she was not disobeying orders and “seemed very scared.”
“I just tried to give her very simple instructions that she needed to get up and go,” Chiodo testified.
The newspaper had assigned Sahouri to cover the protest at Merle Hay mall in Des Moines, days after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was declared dead after a white officer put his knee on his neck for nine minutes. Hundreds of protesters gathered, and Sahouri was reporting the details live on Twitter.
Wilson, an 18-year veteran of the Des Moines Police Department, said he responded to the protest and found a “riotous mob” that was breaking store windows, throwing rocks and water bottles at officers, and running in different directions. He said his unit was told to clear a commercial parking lot, and he used a device known as a fogger to blanket the area with clouds of pepper spray.
He said the chemical irritants worked in forcing most of the crowd to scatter, including Robnett, but that he decided Sahouri needed to be arrested when she did not leave. Wilson said he was unaware that Sahouri was a journalist.
Wilson said that he grabbed her with his left hand while his fogger was in his right hand. Wilson said that Robnett returned and tried to pull Sahouri out of his grasp, and Wilson deployed more pepper spray that “incapacitated” Robnett.
Sahouri was taken to jail and released hours later.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, Wilson said that he charged Sahouri with interference because she briefly pulled her left arm away while he was arresting her. He acknowledged that he did not mention that claim in his police report on the arrest.
Wilson said that he only rarely used his body camera during his normal job at the city airport, wrongly believed it had recorded Sahouri’s arrest, and was unfamiliar with the details of the department’s body camera policy.
The cameras are always capturing video when on and can retrieve video of incidents that were not recorded afterward if they have not yet been erased. Officers who fail to record incidents that they should have are required to notify supervisors, who can then try to recover video that does not have audio. It was clear immediately that Sahouri’s arrest was newsworthy and controversial.
Prosecutors say Sahouri and Robnett ignored police orders to leave the area long before their arrests, while the defense argues any such orders were not clear.
Body camera video played in court showed officers yelling at protesters to get out of an intersection and instructing them to be peaceful about 90 minutes before their arrests, and that Robnett and Sahouri complied.
A separate order to disperse could be heard faintly on the video in the background — so quiet that even an officer testifying for the prosecution seemed to struggle to make it out. But prosecutors argued that the message was louder at the scene and broadcast over a public address system.