Update: Suspect arrested in robbery of SF news crew

July 7, 2015 06:10

Update: A San Francisco man has been arrested in connection with the armed robbery of a television news crew in July.

KTVU-TV reports:
Michael A. Jones was taken into custody after a tussle with arresting officers following an intense investigation and manhunt by the San Francisco Police Department. Two other suspects remain at large.

Jones, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, was set to make a court appearance Wednesday to set the date for a preliminary hearing.
He also faces a Friday court appearance on unrelated charges according to San Francisco prosecutors.

Jones and two others are suspected in the July 2nd armed robbery. In the early morning hours, a man armed with a handgun and wearing a black mask approached the crews while KTVU Fox 2 reporter Cara Liu was preparing to go live for the KTVU Morning News to report on the investigation of the shooting death of Kate Steinle.

As anchor Brian Flores went to Liu’s report, she is visibly distracted and looking off camera.

Nearby, the unidentified bandit was pistol-whipping KNTV cameraman Alan Waples and his equipment was being stolen.

Startled, Liu asked Flores to “hold on wait.”

She then came back on-air to say an incident had occurred. Off camera, the bandit pointed a gun at  KTVU Fox 2 cameraman Keith Crook and fled with his camera and tripod.

Fortunately neither Liu nor Crook were injured.

Read KTVU's full report here.

RTDNA's Janice Gin wrote about the issue in July, in an article shown below. Gin will moderate a panel on news crew safety at Excellence in Journalism 2015 in Orlando in September.

Armed robbery highlights dangers news crews face
By Janice S. Gin, RTNDF Trustee

July 7, 2015
Being a journalist is actually a dangerous job. The Hollywood-like lights, cameras and celebrity feel can easily mislead even those of us who are in the local news business to think what we do is safe. After all, we work in America’s cities and towns. We are not in a war zone.

Or are we? Covering news means we can find ourselves in the midst of civil unrest, natural disasters, police activity and other high-risk situations. But in the Bay Area, just doing our daily jobs feels like high-risk.

Four television news crews were set up for morning live shots at one of San Francisco’s iconic tourist strolls last week. With the majestic Bay Bridge in the background, the crews took their positions along Pier 14 where a 32-year-old woman was killed the evening before in a random shooting. It was a story that stunned the community and now the nation -- an attack in broad daylight of a daughter who was walking on the pier with her father and a family friend, enjoying the scenery after a meal earlier at a nearby restaurant.
This area of San Francisco is not normally considered a dangerous part of town. It is not unusual for it to be lined with sight-seeing tourists, or locals out for an early morning jog or just heading to work. Morning newscasts start as early as 4 a.m. in the market, so the news crews had already been on the pier for a couple hours with their live vans parked all in a line on the sidewalk one after another.

Then just after 6:00 a.m. another attack. The journalists report an armed gunman rushed up on the crew from KNTV. As photographer Alan Waples was adjusting his lights, the robber put a gun to his head and demanded his gear. His reporter was heard yelling, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Waples said, “Take the camera!” According to news accounts, the gunman ordered the reporter on the ground, pistol-whipped the photographer causing a gash on his ear and a bruise on his upper arm, and ran off with the camera and tripod to an awaiting black BMW.

But the gunman was not done. With one camera in the car, he went back to grab the camera and tripod belonging to KTVU. During the heist, the gunman dropped a full clip of ammunition before driving off with two other men. It all happened in less than a minute. There have been no arrests.

This was not the first time a San Francisco Bay Area news crew has been robbed of their gear. Since 2011, an informal list of attacks on the media – TV news crews, print photographers, and film/production crews -- shows close to 60 incidents. Many of them were vehicle smash and grabs. About a third of them were face-to-face attacks of with gun-toting criminals.
In January 2011, a news crew covering a story across the bay in Oakland was assaulted by three armed men. The reporter at one point was forced to his knees with a gun to his head, the photographer pistol whipped. The assailants took off with the camera gear. At the time, this was considered a horrible, frightening incident but not a crime spree.

Later that year, as the Occupy movement became more aggressive, particularly in Oakland, several media outlets began hiring security guards, some armed, to go with their field crews assigned to cover the demonstrations. Two years earlier, we had already experience violent protests when an unarmed passenger was shot by a transit cop who said he mistook his gun for a Taser, triggering nights of rioting and mayhem. We had a sense of what to expect and how we should react especially when rioters turned their aggression on news crews.
In June 2012, another news crew preparing for a late news live shot in what everyone said was a “safe neighborhood”, was robbed. One suspect snatched the camera, the other snatched a laptop from the reporter’s lap as she sat in the passenger seat of the live truck writing her story. Though no one saw a gun, one of the suspects reportedly told the other to shoot. There was no gunfire. Just a few weeks later, more reports of strong armed robberies of media in Oakland. At that time, the problem seemed isolated to that city and the media started hiring security guards for most all assignments in Oakland.

In 2013, there were yet several more cases of armed robbery but this time in San Francisco. In one incident, two armed men approached a nightside reporter demanding his equipment. Fearing for their lives, the security guard assigned to the crew drew his weapon and fired, injuring one suspect. Since then, most every station hires security guards on a daily basis to assignments in Oakland, San Francisco and other Bay Area cities where crews feel there is danger.

Collin Wong, is the Chief Operating Officer for Star Protection Agency, a security company which provides many local stations with guards. Wong has watched the security threat on the media escalate over the years. He says when all the crews are at the same scene covering the same story, “There is strength in numbers. It is to your advantage to all be together but at the same time it creates an easy crime of opportunity.”
Wong explains that broadcasters are high profile targets with big vehicles, bright lights and expensive equipment that are hard to camouflage. Adding to that, the retired police officer says the newscasters advertise precisely where the crews are during their live shots, and in effect leaves a criminal little guesswork on where to find something valuable to steal.

Wong says, “How the media gathers news is probably not going to change.” And he cautions, “There is no such thing as a safe zone.”

SAG-AFTRA, the union representing many field reporters is acutely concerned about the attacks that have plagued the market. In a press release issued the evening after the Pier 14 robberies, the union said, “The attacks today are a reminder of how vulnerable news crews can be and of the dangers broadcast professionals can face daily.  Unfortunately, sometimes the most prepared reporters still fall victim.”

Last fall, on the heels of violence against journalists in Ferguson, Missouri, SAG-AFTRA launched “Safety4Media”, a national campaign to raise awareness about safety in the field and to serve as a clearinghouse for reports about safety or concerns of U.S.-based journalists. The frustration and concern about safety in the field will be a focus at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Orlando in September.  We’re bringing together those in the field, media representatives and security experts for a panel discussion about what every journalist should know to stay safe.

Though rewarding, being a journalist can be a dangerous job. But we do it in the pursuit of truth and understand the important role we play to inform our audiences. As journalists, we have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless, to hold the powerful accountable, and even to inspire. It takes passion for the truth and the courage to seek it.

But some journalists believe it is becoming more difficult. Keith Crook, the KTVU photographer whose camera was stolen at the pier, said, “It's getting really hard to be in the field. I'm looking over my shoulder as much as I'm looking through the lens.”
Janice S.Gin is an RTDNF Trustee and has been a TV news manager at several stations in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 15 years.