Montpelier seeks new policy on police photographs

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(Host) This is a season of demonstrations, and nowhere in Vermont are they more plentiful than in Montpelier. Marches and protests are all in a day’s work for Montpelier’s police department. But the department has created a stir over the practice of taking photographs at demonstrations.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Central Vermont is home to one of the state’s most robust activist communities. As the center of state government, Montpelier is a natural for people looking to make a political statement. It’s a short march from the busy downtown corner of State and Main to the broad lawn of the Statehouse.

Chief Doug Hoyt grew up in Montpelier. He’s been on the force for 32 years. Hoyt says he’s developed a good relationship with local activists. He mentions that earlier in the day, someone asked him to pass along a message to one of the organizers of a demonstration taking place that morning.

(Hoyt) “So, all of a sudden I’m looked upon as the intermediary, which is kind of a unique feeling for me considering the last few days. I’ve taken a couple of hits over these photographs.”

(Zind) Hoyt is referring to photographs taken by uniformed Montpelier police officers during a recent downtown anti-war demonstration by local high school students. The disclosure that the police take photographs at some demonstrations has led to another protest, of sorts.

(Sound from a Montpelier City Council meeting) “I think that maybe we ought to start out with having each of the police officers of this town supply us with 8×10 glossy photographs of them….”

(Zind) At a recent city council meeting a succession of Montpelierites expressed displeasure with the practice. One of the students who took part in the demonstration told the council having his photo taken by police was intimidating.

(Student) “Whether or not there was intent or not, it does it. It really has that effect on people, when people exercising their first amendment rights feel that the police are taking pictures of them.”

(Zind) Hoyt says the picture taking isn’t meant to intimidate. He says the student demonstration was unannounced. Police received calls from alarmed residents and thought it would be a good idea to take pictures in case there was trouble. Hoyt says police use their judgement in deciding which events to photograph. He cites past demonstrations where there have been angry confrontations over issues like abortion and gay rights. Hoyt says taking pictures is as much for the protection of demonstrators as well as bystanders.

But Hoyt recognizes that attitudes toward police taking photographs are a product of the times, and these days there are concerns about who has access to information gathered by the authorities.

(Hoyt) “I had a council member come up to me after the meeting on Wednesday and say, “Have you ever been contacted by any federal agency to share any of this information? No, never. The thought never occurred to me. I’m not na ve, it just never occurred to me.”

(Zind) The student demonstration took place a day after Montpelier voters approved a resolution condemning the USA Patriot Act as an infringement on civil liberties. Where concerns over security collide with concerns over civil liberties, some argue that Montpelier should be able to strike a balance that suits the community.

(Council meeting speaker) “We live in Montpelier, Vermont. We are not under siege. We do not need to buy into the siege mentality that is being pushed by some people in this country.”

(Zind) Activists give Montpelier police good marks for their handling of demonstrations. But they want the police to stop taking pictures. Hoyt says he’d like to continue having the discretion to take photos and promises that from now on all pictures will be destroyed within a few days of the event. The city council is expected to make a decision on a policy later this month. Whatever the city decides, it’s unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of the student protesters.

(Student) “Whether or not the police took our photos, I would just like to say that Wednesday was one of the most amazing days of my life so far.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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