Worcester cops will stop photographing protesters
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
Chalk one up for civil liberties. Worcester police chief James Gallagher, under fire for his department’s longstanding practice of filming political protests (see "Framed," News and Features, March 29), has agreed not to photograph peaceful rallies — unless there’s a legitimate law-enforcement reason to do so, such as pursuing a criminal investigation.
The Worcester police chief submitted the new policy on photographic surveillance of people gathered in public places to city officials last week. Gallagher characterizes the four-page proposal, dated May 8, as an attempt to "balance an individual’s right to privacy with the police department’s obligation to provide for public safety." It forbids filming any "group or persons ... on account of lawful exercise of a constitutional right or civil liberty," yet allows such photographing in the case of criminal investigations. The Worcester City Council, which received the proposed policy last Tuesday, forwarded it to the council’s public-safety committee for review.
Gallagher’s move comes after community activists and civil libertarians complained about the Worcester Police Department’s (WPD) once-secret practice. When attendants at an October 8 peace rally inadvertently discovered a cop taking their pictures, WPD officials were forced to acknowledge that they’ve routinely photographed peaceful demonstrations, including labor pickets and political rallies, for decades.
Critics of the police photo-surveillance program hail the new policy proposal. The document, they note, establishes a much-needed record-keeping system. It also lays out a chain of command, stating that the chief or a deputy must approve photo surveillance. It explains who will be responsible for storing, cataloguing, and viewing any of the photographs. And it states that all photographs will be matters of public record. More important, it represents a clear shift in sentiment within the police force.
"Before, the police had no policy and their attitude was, ‘We don’t need one,’" explains Ronal Madnick of the Worcester American Civil Liberties Union. "Now their attitude has changed, and that’s good."
Still, critics aren’t entirely satisfied. While the policy draft describes criminal investigation as a legitimate reason to photograph protesters, it also puts forth this additional justification: "a reasonable belief that the photographic surveillance may provide information necessary to facilitate investigations." Such vague language, Madnick says, raises more questions than it answers. "When you get down to it," he adds, "it sounds as if police still say, ‘We’ll photograph peaceful protesters when we want.’ "
Expect critics to register these complaints at an upcoming public hearing on the new policy, which the public-safety committee has yet to schedule. Madnick and others are now gearing up to fight for more definitive language. As he puts it, "We want a policy that says, ‘Yes, you can photograph criminal activity and [to further] ongoing criminal investigations. But other than that, there’s absolutely no need.’ "
In other words, stay tuned.
Issue Date: May 23 - 30, 2002
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