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By Pat Rynard, courtesy of Iowa Starting Line 

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie responded this afternoon to frustrations that police arrested and pepper-sprayed a Des Moines Register reporter who was covering a protest yesterday, as well as hitting a photographer with a rubber bullet.

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“I think that when we’re in the throes of a riot, sometimes, you know, law enforcement looks at a situation and wants to keep everybody safe,” Cownie said at a press conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds and other state and local leaders outside the Capitol. “As we’re trying to move people away, sometimes it’s hard to separate the press from others when there’s rioting going on, glass being broken, and people’s health and safety at risk.”

The Register’s Andrea Sahouri was arrested by police during the protest and rioting near the Merle Hay Mall on Sunday afternoon. Charged with failure to disperse and interfering with official acts, she was released from the Polk County jail late that evening after initially being told those jailed would be held overnight.

“I believe the unfortunate situation … we had a reporter who was in the midst of it,” Cownie continued. “We can’t check credentials of everybody to see who they are or what they are. The point is, are they obeying the orders of our public safety officials, and how do we get everybody out of harm’s way and make the right thing happen?”

That description did not match what the reporter and others said happened. Sahouri repeatedly identified herself as press to the police. She said an officer pepper-sprayed her in her face after she did so.

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Cownie essentially put the blame on the reporter.

“For me, we apologize that the individual fell into the group that was arrested, but hopefully everybody understands the fear of our law enforcement, we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Cownie said. “We want people to get out of the way when bad things are happening.”

The Des Moines incident followed days of protests and violence in nearly every major city in America, spurred by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. In a number of those cities, police have targeted reporters with violence.

Gov. Kim Reynolds tried to turn the focus back on provocateurs in the peaceful protests who have helped incite conflict.

“That is not the intent,” she said of the arrest. “There are distractors who are here to really cause chaos and take advantage of a horrific situation … The majority are peaceful protesters that have a powerful message, and we’re trying to do everything we can to give them the opportunity to be heard. But when you have distractors and individuals — small number — come in, they can really cause some chaos.”

After he finished his answer, Cownie turned to Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert, who was standing besides other speakers at the Capitol.

“I don’t know it the chief has anything else,” Cownie said.

Wingert shook his head no, and Cownie left the podium.

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