Editor’s Note: This article was updated with additional information at 2:45pm on Tuesday, Dec. 7.
Sausalito police officers arrested a Marin photojournalist while he worked at a homeless encampment in Marinship Park on Nov. 30, according to interviews with camp volunteers and residents, and a video of the arrest.
Jeremy Portje, 43, was filming at the encampment, which is located on public property, when arrested. An experienced photojournalist, Portje is working on a documentary about homelessness in Marin County. Police confiscated Portje’s camera and gear at the time of the arrest and have yet to return it.
Though the circumstances leading up to the arrest remain somewhat unclear, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, a press freedom advocacy group, said that any arrest of a journalist doing their job is cause for concern.
Luis, a volunteer at the encampment who requested his last name not be used, said he saw the arrest and the incidents preceding it. As Luis stood on the sidewalk near the parking area at Marinship Park, he noticed an officer following Portje. When the journalist set up his camera and began filming, the officer stood directly in front of the camera.
An encampment resident, Jeff Jacob, who also witnessed the altercation, believes Officer Nick White blocked the camera; however, Luis said it was Sgt. Thomas Georges. Both Jacob and Luis said that Georges, without provocation, grabbed Portje’s camera. In doing so, Georges appeared to accidentally hit himself in the chin or chest with the piece of equipment, according to Luis.
“The officer reacted to the camera hitting him,” Luis said. “He started punching Jeremy.”
Portje attempted to block the blows by placing his arms over his head. Georges then grabbed Portje’s arms and forced the journalist to his knees on the pavement, according to Luis. Another officer, Sean Smagalski, assisted in cuffing Portje, while White stood by, a video of the arrest shows.
Luis and Jacob agree that at some point during the clash, Georges threw the journalist’s camera to the ground.
Georges was injured, Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman said in a brief email. Hoffman and Sausalito Police Chief John Rohrbacher did not answer numerous other questions about Portje’s arrest.
Jacob said Rohrbacher pointed out a small scrape above Georges’ eye just after Portje’s arrest.
The three charges against Portje include two felonies and a misdemeanor: obstructing an executive officer, battery on a police officer with injury and battery on a police officer, according to the Marin County jail booking log on Nov. 30.
Portje spent the night of Nov. 30 in jail and was released early the following morning on $15,000 bail, according to Charles Dresow, a criminal defense attorney representing Portje. Marin County District Attorney Lori E. Frugoli has not yet determined whether to press charges. The journalist’s arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 20.
The arrest comes at a time of rising tensions between encampment residents and the police, leading some to speculate that Portje’s arrest was a form of retribution.
Georges, White and Smagalski are the same three officers who arrested two homeless people for camping in a downtown public park two weeks ago. Portje recently made a public-records request for the three officers’ body-camera footage from that arrest.
Portje is currently self-employed and previously worked as a photographer for the Marin Independent Journal and a daily newspaper in Iowa. A Novato resident, Portje serves as the vice chair of the city’s Police Advisory & Review Board, which reviews citizen complaints about police officers.
While Dresow declined to comment on the motive behind Portje’s arrest, he said he is disturbed about the implications of arresting a journalist while he was doing his job. Dresow said the seizure of Portje’s equipment, which contains the video of the police actions on the day of the altercation, is an issue of equal importance.
“My journalist client ended up on the ground,” Dresow said. “It’s clear the Sausalito police used force to arrest a journalist. To say this is an outrage of constitutional proportions is an understatement.”
Glen Smith, litigation director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit which seeks to protect journalists and win access to public records, agrees.
“Anytime a journalist is arrested and has their equipment seized, it’s a matter of grave concern to the First Amendment Coalition and other journalist organizations and civil rights organizations,” Smith said.
So far this year, 56 journalists have been detained or arrested by law enforcement across the country, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a nonpartisan organization that tracks violations of freedom of the press. This number is down from 142 detainments or arrests in 2020, the year of the George Floyd protests, when journalists were arrested in record numbers.
Under the First Amendment, journalists are permitted to gather news in public spaces. The California Shield Law offers additional protections by prohibiting the government from seizing unpublished materials, even during an arrest or with a search warrant.
Portje’s equipment is subject to the state shield law since it contains unpublished material gathered for the documentary he is producing, according to David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
On Dec. 7, Snyder sent a letter to Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli and the Sausalito mayor and police chief detailing the applicable federal and state laws protecting Portje’s right to gather news in a public space and safeguarding his equipment from unlawful seizure. Snyder urged the police department to return Portje’s equipment and asked Frugoli not to press charges against the journalist.
“We strongly urge District Attorney Frugoli to take the serious constitutional issues into consideration when deciding whether prosecution of Mr. Portje is justified,” Snyder wrote. “Based on information made public to date, we believe Ms. Frugoli should decline to pursue these charges.”