Neighborhood looks to Legislature for help on videotaping issue

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(Host) A Brattleboro neighborhood is looking to the legislature for help with a tricky problem. A resident has been videotaping his neighbors against their will.

Some observers say it’s a case of conflicting constitutional rights.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The Clark Street neighborhood where Paul Canon lives is a narrow maze of close-together wooden houses and apartments. His is the yellow house wrapped in heavy plastic and peppered with keep out signs.

(Camera sounds)

(Keese) From a small dark entryway, he aims his video camera through a diamond-shaped window in his front door.

(Canon) “There’s a good shot right there. I can see her porch right here… right there and right there, down the street. And I’m not looking in looking in anybody’s windows. But the porch is fair game for anybody and everything.”

(Keese) Canon believes that some of his neighbors are engaged in illegal activities. He says he’s captured evidence of drug dealing, unleashed dogs, and misbehaving kids dressed liked gangster wannabees.

The taping has infuriated his neighbors. Last summer they held a public meeting in a neighborhood church to see what could be done. Even Brattleboro Police chief John Martin asked Canon to stop.

But Martin says Canon isn’t breaking any law.

(Martin) “There is no Vermont statute that prevents anyone from videotaping in the public. If it’s your front porch it’s a public place. The standards for videotaping are the same as for being seen. You have accepted by going out into an area that can be viewed from a property that’s other than yours whether it be public or private, you have accepted that risk of being videotaped or seen.”

(Keese) The tensions increased after one of Canon’s neighbors, a 32-year-old woman, took her own life. Neighbors say that before she died she spent a lot of time trying to get town officials to stop the videotaping. Canon says he’s not responsible.

Brian Gantt a local minister says she was in tears when she talked with him the day before she died.

(Gantt) “And she was saying things like, I have this small little yard for my son to go out and play in and I don’t feel I can let him out of the apartment to go play in the yard because I’m being watched all the time.’ And while there’s never probably one thing that leads to a suicide, there was really one thing that she wanted to talk about and that was the video taping.”

(Keese) Gantt is also among the people asking the legislature to step in with an answer.

Independent state representative Daryl Pillsbury represents the Clark Street neighborhood. Pillsbury has asked the legislative counsel to draft a bill, maybe under the state’s stalking or harassment laws. He says he doesn’t want to trample anyone’s rights. But he says people should be able to enjoy the yards and porches without surveillance.

Pillsbury himself occasionally walks around Brattleboro with a video camera talking to people for his public access TV show.

(Pillsbury) “And I don’t want that to stop. But this one was just, you know, I care about the community I live in. And this is a neighborhood that is comprised mostly of minorities and low-income people. And this is another instance where they feel as usual that their voice isn’t being heard.”

(Keese) Police Chief Martin says his officers have viewed many of Canon’s tapes. He won’t say whether they’ve contributed to any arrests. But he says in some places videotaping is encouraged to deter neighborhood crime.

(Martin) “What we found in this particular situation is that it’s just gone overboard to the extent that it has unnerved the entire neighborhood as opposed to trying to prevent crime from occurring.”

(Keese) But Canon says his taping has resulted in change. Police have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, and hired a social worker to help with community issues.

Canon’s house has been vandalized, but he says he’s going to continue.

(Canon) “I’m ashamed things have to go like this. But I’m not going to bow down to these people. I have no intention of bowing down.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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