The Wall Street Journal is demanding answers from the Phoenix Police Department after an officer detained and handcuffed one of its reporters outside a Chase Bank — an incident that press freedom advocates say raises First Amendment concerns and mirrors a larger, growing hostility from local law enforcement toward journalists across the country.
The incident between The Journal reporter Dion Rabouin and the Phoenix officer occurred in late November, but just became public his week after ABC affiliate KNXV reported on the matter. In a statement, The Journal said that it is “deeply concerned” with how its reporter was treated and has asked the Phoenix Police Department to conduct an investigation.
“No journalist should ever be detained simply for exercising their First Amendment rights,” The Journal said.
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In response, the Phoenix Police Department — which is being probed by the Department of Justice to determine whether its officers retaliate against people “for conduct protected by the First Amendment” — stressed to me that the incident occurred on private property, but that the department had nonetheless shared concerns raised by the paper with the Professional Standards Bureau andthat an investigation is underway.
At the crux of this particular matter is a rather innocent act of journalism. While visiting family in Arizona for the Thanksgiving holiday, Rabouin, who is Black, attempted to interview passersby on a sidewalk outside a Chase branch for an ongoing story about savings accounts, he told the Phoenix affiliate.
Representatives from the bank approached him and asked what he was doing and Rabouin said he identified himself as a journalist. Rabouin said he was never asked to leave, but an officer soon arrived on the scene.
Rabouin said he volunteered to simply stop reporting from the scene, but video captured by a bystander shows the responding officer handcuff him, put him in the back of a police vehicle, and even threaten to shove him in if he did not comply. The video shows Rabouin repeatedly identified himself as a reporter for The Journal, but the officer did not appear to care. The bystander who began recording the incident was also threatened with arrest.
Ultimately, after about 15 minutes, when other officers showed up, Rabouin was allowed to walk free. A representative for Chase told me Thursday that the bank did apologize to Rabouin over the incident. But the local police department has thus far refrained from doing so.
In a letter dated December 7 from Journal Editor-In-Chief Matt Murray to Phoenix Police Department Interim Chief Michael Sullivan, the editor described the officer’s conduct as “offensive to civil liberties,” and demanded to know what steps the department will take to “ensure that neither Mr. Rabouin nor any other journalist is again subjected to such conduct.” The Journal told me Thursday that Murray has not received a response from Sullivan.
For press freedom advocates, the incident is representative of countless others that take place around the US each year. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, at least 218 journalists have been arrested in the country since 2020.
Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told me in a statement that “the alarming number of incidents we’ve seen over the last several years where police have detained, arrested, or assaulted journalists who were doing their jobs threatens to chill this kind of essential newsgathering.”
Brown added, “It’s time for the law enforcement community to hold itself accountable for its actions. The Phoenix Police Department can start now.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also sounded the alarm over the incident. Katherine Jacobsen, the organization’s US and Canada program director, told me the detention of Rabouin “highlights a very real threat faced by reporters – especially local reporters – across the country.” Jacobsen went on to say that it is “disheartening to see acts of hostility toward journalists working in the United States.”
Through a spokesperson, Rabouin declined to comment to me on Thursday. But he did post one tweet about the matter.
“Thanks to everyone who has reached out to offer support,” Rabouin wrote. “We’re hoping to hear back from the chief or someone at the department soon.”