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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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August 11, 2008 5:03 PM

Off-duty cops boot Demo cameraman from Rossi event

Posted by David Postman

This is a version of a story Andrew Garber and I wrote for tomorrow's paper.

Off-duty Seattle police officers last week forcibly removed a Democratic Party cameraman from a press conference where the police guild was giving its endorsement to Republican Dino Rossi.

Guild members threatened the young man with arrest and made an emergency call to 911, bringing uniformed officers to the scene. Cameraman Kelly Akers was given a written "admonishment" that warned him against trespassing.

“There’s no fine, no penalty, no request for charges,” said Seattle Police Department Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

You can watch Akers' video of the event here.

The incident Thursday was the roughest implementation yet of Rossi’s longstanding policy not to allow the Democratic Party worker to record his appearances. “We don’t allow them in to collect attack video,” Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said of the practice of having Akers escorted from campaign events.

The clash last week came at the headquarters of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild. Rossi was there backed by a line of off-duty officers. A guild worker asked Akers to leave. But he kept taping as Rossi accepted the endorsement in his race against Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Akers was confronted by three off-duty police officers, at least some of whom he says grabbed him and pushed him out of the building. Outside they continued to argue as the officers held Akers in what he described as a “suppression submission hold.”

Akers showed what appeared to be a bruise on his sternum in a report aired by KOMO 4 News Friday night.

Sgt. Ty Elster, vice president for the guild, said three members “escorted” Akers out the door. Elster was not at the event, but spoke to staff that were there. He said he didn’t know the names of the off-duty officers involved.

“I’ve heard various sources describe it as being manhandled,” he said. “Our folks tell me it wasn’t anything of the sort. They merely placed a hand on his arm and escorted him out the door. There was no force involved. There was no struggle.”

A Democratic spokesman says that’s not true. Kelly Steele, Akers’ supervisor, accused the guild members of “violence” and said Akers’ was “drug outside from behind.”

“He got roughed up pretty bad,” Steele said. He remained sore Monday.

As Akers was pushed out of the office, his camera recorded him saying, in an increasingly loud and alarmed voice, “Sir, could you please take your hands off me? Sir, could you please take your hands off of me?”

A guild member told him, “You were advised not to come into the building. This is private property. If you come back in the building you will be arrested for trespassing. Do you understand that? Do you understand?

Akers: I don’t understand what the problem is.

Guild member: It’s private property. You were not invited. You are not a member of the official press, so you are not invited.

Akers: Sir, could you please take your hands off of my camera?

Guild member: No, turn it off.

Akers got loud again as he said, “Hey, hey, hey, hey. What are you doing?”

On the tape, the initial confrontation appears to end, or at least lessen, after a Guild member apparently with a hold on Akers says to him, “If I let go, are you going to leave? Yes or no?”

Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said that Akers knows he’s not welcome at the campaign events because for months he’s been asked to leave by various event organizers. She said that the campaign gives a “head’s up” to organizers that a Democratic cameraman is likely to show up and should be asked to leave.

“We’re sorry that it had to end that way,” Strait said of Thursday’s incident. “But he wouldn’t’ have to be escorted off the premises if he had just left when he was asked to. I really think he was trying to provoke an incident by refusing to leave.”

A Republican Party worker videotapes appearances by Gregoire. Steele said that it’s hypocritical then for Rossi to kick out Akers. Strait, though, said it makes no difference to the Rossi campaign if Gregoire allows herself to be taped by the opposition.

Democrats show up at Rossi events despite being consistently turned away. Some of those exchanges have been posted by Democrats on YouTube, where the party asks, “What is Rossi hiding?”

One of those videos shows a cameraman, not Akers, at a public park in Wenatchee trying to film a Rossi event taking place in a roped-off area. Several people affiliated with the organizers, the state and local farm bureaus, tell him he cannot video tape the event, even from outside the roped-off area, and then tell him he is not allowed to stand there, either.

Strait said she wasn’t at that event, but has reviewed the video tape. Asked if Democratic operatives should be evicted from the park, she said, “If they’re in a public space” they should be allowed. She said that Rossi did not try to stop a Democratic cameraman from following him down the streets of Prosser on a recent tour.

Thursday’s incident ended soon after two uniformed officers arrived in a patrol car. Akers had this exchange with one of the officers:

Officer: You got ID real quick?

Akers: Sure. Can I ask why?

Officer: ‘Cuz we find your activities a little suspicious in front our guild offices.

Akers: What’s the problem?

Officer: Just contacting you, dude. It’s suspicious circumstance. I just need to identify you. No big deal. It’s just a moment in time.

Akers: What exactly was suspicious about what I was doing?

Officer: Videotaping on the grounds.

The guild called 911 to have police come to their office because “it’s very important that when we’re involved in a political function that we have a clear distinction between on duty and off-duty,” Elster said.

The guild wanted to “ensure we wouldn’t have any further problem with him. He had already demonstrated that he was unwilling to respect our private property rights.”

Whitcomb, the police department spokesman, said three officers responded to the incident. He said the guild office did the right thing by dialing 911.

“He wasn’t leaving and didn’t want to leave. Having on-duty resources there to de-escalate the situation and resolve the conflict was prudent,” he said.

Calling 911 isn’t just for dire emergencies, Whitcomb said. “Anyone else who is a private property owner, who is going through a similar problem … is encouraged to call 911. This is exactly what we’re here for,” he said.

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