A civil lawsuit brought by three veteran journalists against the city of Los Angeles enters its second week Monday. The journalists, including KPCC's Patricia Nazario, say LAPD officers beat them up during an immigration rights march in MacArthur Park three years ago.
In tearful testimony last week, Fox TV camerawoman Patti Ballaz said she was “terrified” as she photographed “wild-eyed” LAPD officers firing rubber bullets and using their batons against passive immigration rights marchers. Riot police were clearing MacArthur Park after a handful of troublemakers threw rocks and bottles at them during a march that attracted thousands of people.
Suddenly, Ballaz said, she felt a baton hit near her left breast and an officer shoving her to the ground, her 30 pound camera slamming against her wrist.
For three decades the short and stocky Ballaz has covered the news in Southern California. She said the LAPD regularly allowed her to pass through police lines. It was department policy.
This time, she said, her encounter with officers left her needing multiple surgeries to her wrist and back. Ballaz, 51, never returned to work. She never returned to the fishing she loves. The LAPD, she said, “ended her life as she knew it.”
Video shows an officer striking Ballaz and Fox TV reporter Christina Gonzalez, who’s also required surgery and has flashbacks. A third journalist, KPCC’s Patricia Nazario, has said a police officer knocked her to the ground with his baton. She said she hit the back of her head on hard dirt, suffering a “mild brain injury” that caused her vertigo, and memory and balance problems.
In a deposition shown in court, former Police Chief Bill Bratton testified that the police used too much force in MacArthur Park. Former LAPD crowd control expert Mike Hillman agreed in his testimony. After the incident, the department retrained all of its officers in crowd management.
The three journalists are suing the city for unspecified damages. Five other journalists have settled their lawsuits with the city in amounts ranging from $50,000 to $250,000. Neither side would say why these journalists and the city did not settle. The city also agreed to pay $13 million to nearly 300 people in MacArthur Park that day.
In defending the city, deputy city attorneys Jessica Brown and Todd Hayward are seeking to show that the journalists "interfered" with police and posed a threat to officers as police were trying to deal with a "dangerous situation." Brown said people throwing rocks were "hiding behind the media" and that Ballaz, Gonzalez and Nazario were trying to "inject themselves into the story" because "they were going to get the story no matter what."
Courthouse News Services said the city presented Officer Joseph Clay, who testified that the journalists refused orders to exit the park and blended in with protesters, despite their cameras, microphones and media badges. Clay said he pushed Ballaz rather than hit her, and struck Gonzalez because the journalist was reaching for an officer’s gun. Another officer is expected to testify that he saw someone pull a brick from Nazario’s backpack and throw it at police.
If the journalists are able to convince a jury that the officers used excessive force, the next question is how much money they’re owed. The city’s said many of the injuries they’re claiming came before their clash with police in MacArthur Park.