As soon as Roberto Cortez and his friend spotted the Los Angeles police car idling across from Jonce Thomas Harbor City Community Park last Friday, they turned and walked the other way.
It was an instinct Cortez said he honed growing up in the Harbor City neighborhood, where being hassled by police was not uncommon.
Still, he was surprised when the officers suddenly drove onto the grass to intercept the teens and immediately took Cortez’s friend and another man into custody. Cortez pulled out his cellphone and started recording the arrest.
As he stepped closer to get a better view, one of the officers lunged at Cortez in an apparent attempt to grab the phone and, after a brief struggle, took the 19-year-old to the ground, according to videos of the incident shot by bystanders.
“I let them detain me and I’m still asking them why am I being detained,” said Cortez, recalling the incident in an interview with The Times. “I knew that what I was doing wasn’t wrong and I wanted to capture it on film.”
Videos of the arrest were posted on Twitter, setting off a wave of angry responses from people who questioned the decision to forcibly take Cortez to the ground when he was not posing an obvious threat to the officers or interfering with them.
The incident has sparked a use-of-force investigation into the actions of the officer, who has not been named, the department said. LAPD spokesperson Capt. Kelly Muniz, however, denied that Cortez had been detained for recording the incident, pointing out that others at the scene who were also recording with their cellphones weren’t arrested. Instead, she said, officers had intended to detain the teen along with the other two men on suspicion of firearms possession.
No guns were found and police would not say why they believed the three young men were armed. The two other men were released without being arrested, while Cortez was arrested for resisting an executive officer. The city attorney’s office filed a resisting arrest charge against Cortez, police said.
The department’s explanation for the arrest struck Mohammad Tajsar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, as “specious.”
“It was clear that the police were not interested in the young man who they violently threw to the ground prior to him filming what they were doing, because if they were interested they would have already arrested him,” said Tajsar.
Tajsar said the 1st Amendment gives broad protections to film in public and that many court decisions have affirmed the right to film police belongs not just to professional journalists but amateur “cop watchers” as well.
“The only thing people can’t do is interfere with a cop who is out in the field doing some cop stuff, but what we have seen in instances of where there’s been abuses is that cops take an expansive and totally unsupported legal view of what interfering is,” Tajsar said.
Warning: The following video includes profanity.
Police harassment is a real thing. They come into our communities and treat us and our youth with the upmost disrespect. They do not have to follow the law I guess because they are the law. The question was why am I being detained? No answer. Just bodyslammed the youngster pic.twitter.com/ohkz4gNyez
— Lanaisha Edwards (@LanaishaE) September 3, 2022
A cellphone video shot by LaNaisha Edwards shows Cortez recording from a few feet away as officers were taking his friend into custody.
One of the officers moved suddenly toward him in an apparent attempt to grab his phone, the video shows. Cortez backpedaled and held the phone aloft. The officer grabbed Cortez, tried to pick him up off his feet and tackled him onto the pavement.
“Don’t do that,” Edwards, the bystander, is heard repeating in the video.
Cortez did not become combative but appeared to resist the officer’s efforts to gain control of his arms. Cortez is heard on the video asking the officer why he was being detained. The officer didn’t respond.
Later, Cortez said, he was told police found it suspicious that he and his friend had suddenly turned to walk away in what is known as gang territory.
During the arrests, a small crowd of onlookers gathered, with several people shouting at the officer and demanding to know why Cortez was being detained, the video shows.
At one point, as Cortez was being handcuffed, one of the officers points a Taser at the crowd, threatening to stun them if they did not move back.
Jennifer Corral, president of the Harbor City Neighborhood Council, came upon the scene when she arrived to help set up for an outdoor screening of “The Little Rascals.” The movie was part of the city’s Summer Night Lights, a long-running program co-sponsored by the LAPD that is aimed at keeping kids out of gangs and other trouble by giving them activities.
Corral recognized Cortez and his friend as regular volunteers at the park who often help set up chairs for the monthly films.
“They’re really great kids, they don’t do anything wrong. They’ve helped out, they’re polite. I’ve never had any incidents with them,” Corral told The Times. “I was upset because that shouldn’t have taken place, especially because that’s an [event] where all the kids come to hang out … and not have problems with the police.”
Videos of many high-profile police encounters, including the killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner, have underscored the power of bystanders to bring to light police abuses and controversial tactics that otherwise would have likely remained secret.
With the ubiquity of cell phones, some states have developed tighter restrictions on what on-lookers can and cannot do.
Earlier this year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law making it illegal for someone to record while standing within eight feet of police activity. While proponents argued the law was designed to prevent people from interfering in police work, the move was decried by civil rights groups and media organizations that maintained it would hinder transparency.
In the days since Cortez‘s arrest, Edwards’ 1-minute, 38-second clip has ricocheted across social media after being retweeted by the popular account @FilmThePoliceLA and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of views. It was later retweeted by actor Wendell Pierce, star of HBO dramas “The Wire” and “Treme,” who wrote that there were thousands of similar “violent escalations that sour the public trust.”
After his arrest, Cortez said he was booked at the Harbor Division police station on suspicion of resisting arrest, before being transferred to the 77th Street Jail. He remained there until his mother bailed him out sometime after midnight — after roughly eight hours of detention, he said.
Rocio Cortez recalled how her son grew emotional as he recounted watching the police squad coming toward him and his friend.
“They’re like, ‘Here we go, they’re going to come to (expletive) with us,'” she said. “They already felt that even while standing there that they were going to be harassed. And their intuition was right, that’s exactly what happened.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.