SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Examiner photographer Mike Koozmin was on a routine assignment at the city's Hall of Justice in the middle of the day when he was robbed of his camera equipment.
"They pulled me into an alley and were tugging on my camera strap," Koozmin said of his two assailants, who ended up with $10,000 worth of equipment last month. "I was resisting at first, but then I saw how desperate they were and gave it to them."
It was the latest of at least a dozen robberies of television news crews and still photographers that has plagued the San Francisco Bay Area in recent years.
Camera crews from major Bay Area television stations and photographers from two newspapers have been robbed of their pricey gear. Two have been pistol whipped. An Oakland Tribune photographer lost five cameras in two incidents.
Three robberies and two burglaries have been reported this year. And Koozmin's was one of the most brazen. He was robbed across the street from the city's criminal courthouse, where uniformed police were entering and exiting the building.
Koozmin was jostled but left unhurt. A television cameraman wasn't so lucky on July 2 when two television news crews were robbed during a live broadcast from San Francisco's picturesque waterfront.
As the news crew went live amid joggers and tourists, an assailant wearing a ski mask pistol whipped a KNTV cameraman and the broadcast quickly switched back to the studio. The assailant and two accomplices escaped in a late-model BMW with two stolen cameras and two tripods.
The cameraman sustained a gash behind his ear, but declined medical attention beyond what he received at the scene. The crews that morning were reporting on the shooting death of a young woman allegedly killed at random by a Mexican national living in the country illegally.
So far, no photojournalist has been seriously injured — but personal safety is becoming a higher priority. Assaults on routine assignments in the San Francisco Bay Area have become so commonplace that television stations have hired armed guards to sometimes ride with news crews.
Police on both sides of the San Francisco Bay are investigating the latest robberies and have made no arrests.
"We don't know what the market is for these cameras," said San Francisco Police Sgt. Michael Andraychuk. Even though the cameras can cost upward of $50,000 each, it is specialized equipment that can't be easily sold on the black market, Andraychuk said, and none of the stolen cameras have turned up on Craigslist, eBay or any other online marketplace.
Police in various jurisdictions say brazen robberies started about three years ago, but they aren't keeping an official regional tally. The Associated Press tallied five robberies in 2012, two in 2013, three in 2014 and three so far this year plus several burglaries of vehicles.
Photojournalists in other parts of the country have reported robberies and assaults during riots and other chaotic situations, but San Francisco seems to have taken journalist assaults to a new level.
"It has happened in other places, but the frequency here is unprecedented," said Colin Wong, a former Oakland police officer who owns the security company hired by some stations to guard their crews.
In 2013, one of Wong's guards was accompanying a KRON reporter and cameraman when he shot and wounded a would-be robber in a rough San Francisco neighborhood. On July 21, thieves in Oakland made off with electronics stolen from a parked KTVU van while a guard stood watch over a two-person crew delivering a live report nearby.
"It's a huge issue for us," said Leonard Egert, director of the San Francisco officer of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents most on-air reporters in the Bay Area. "Our reporters want to cover the story, but they want to be safe, too."