QUESTIONS LIKE THESE continue to baffle Worcester activists. That became evident at a recent public hearing on the issue at City Hall. As many as 50 residents turned out on a breezy, balmy March night to voice concerns about the WPD and its once-secret practice of photographing political and labor protests. It was an impressive crowd, a refreshing mix of young and old, black and white, immigrant and native-born, in a city not known for its activism.
For nearly two hours, resident after resident mounted the podium to address the Worcester City Councilís committee on public safety, which oversees the WPD. In calm yet insistent tones, they expressed one prevailing attitude: police should not be allowed to photograph citizens who do nothing but engage in constitutionally protected activity. As the hearing progressed, the testimony grew emotional. One tall, thin man with gray hair told councilors that he had attended the October 8, 2001, peace vigil. He worried aloud about his three children, all of whom had accompanied him that day. Had they also been subjects for the camera? If so, why? "What does that mean for our safety in the future?" he asked. Another vigil participant, a lanky man with a gentle demeanor, confided that he often frets about the photos. Are they stuffed in a file at police headquarters? Are they distributed to other agencies? "This isnít a joke," he said, his voice cracking. "Where does surveillance end ó with a photograph or a tap on my phone line?"
Dianne Rocheleau, a Clark University geography professor who testified at the March 14 hearing, finds herself asking similar questions almost daily. In a separate telephone interview after the hearing, Rocheleau, who attended the October vigil, explains that at first she wanted to know why the WPD would take pictures of activists who were protesting within yards of its own station. But the more she mulled over what had transpired that day, the more suspicious she became. After all, the police photographer hadnít simply snapped shots of the scene. Rather, she had taken methodical close-ups of faces. The purpose was to identify protesters. Soon a stream of doubt was running through Rocheleauís mind: Are the police compiling intelligence files? Do they know my address? Do they know my sonsí names? Will they detain me at future demonstrations? "I donít want to be melodramatic," she says. "But these questions build over time."
The debate has struck a chord that resonates beyond the peace community. Advocates affiliated with some 38 organizations ó working on a variety of issues, from homelessness and poverty to womenís rights ó have presented city councilors with a petition opposing photo surveillance by the WPD. They are urging the council to adopt written guidelines that effectively prohibit the police from engaging in the practice without citing "due cause" ó i.e., providing a reason ó beforehand.
School-committee member Joe OíBrien counts himself among those who signed on to the effort because he believes the police have, in his words, "no business gathering intelligence on people who want to offer a different opinion." OíBrien considers himself a practical guy. Yet he suspects that, given its apparent scope, photo surveillance has taken on new meaning for Worcester residents. The average Joe in this blue-collar city might not think twice about cops photographing peaceniks. But when the tactic extends to nurses and teachers, the general public can identify. "When people think about it," he says, "I think most walk away feeling this is wrong."
Indeed. Sandra Ellis, of the Saint Vincent Hospital nursesí bargaining unit, sounds a lot like last Octoberís vigil participants when she discusses the matter. For weeks in the spring of 2000, when the 575-strong unit went on a high-profile strike in downtown Worcester, the image of Ellis, the nursesí spokesperson at the time, could be seen plastered across newspaper pages and television screens. This is a woman who doesnít mind the camera. But even Ellis cannot shake a sense of unease, knowing now that the police had, and may still have, her snapshot on file. When the nurses discovered the surveillance, Ellis says, "We were stunned." Although she stresses that the nurses donít feel "itís our place" to tell the WPD how to operate, Ellis admits she wants answers: "We have questions about how those pictures were used."
Despite the community uproar, police officials continue to defend the photo-surveillance practice, which dates back to 1970 at least. Police chief James Gallagher, who just began his tenure and now faces his first controversial issue, recognizes that nuns, nurses, and teachers donít fit the subversive stereotype. Yet the WPD doesnít take pictures of protesters because of their political, social, or religious views, he maintains. Rather, it does so only as a precaution. "Any time a group stages an event," he explains, "thereís potential for it to devolve into violence or some public disturbance." Therefore, he adds, "itís only prudent for us to try to keep tabs on who was there."
Seasoned officers like Richard Cipro, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 378, which represents the WPD rank and file, echo the sentiments. When cops snap pictures of protesters, he says, theyíre not conducting surveillance so much as collecting information. "Surveillance occurs with someone suspected of illegal activity. But in this case, police are gathering information in the event of trouble," he explains, ignoring the fact that photography is a form of surveillance. Sometimes, demonstrators might turn violent during a demonstration. Or they might pass themselves off as loyal to a cause just to incite a riot. If police are photographing the event, Cipro argues, they can identify troublemakers instantly, rather than after the fact. Says Cipro, "If youíre not involved in any illegal activity, you have nothing to worry about with this practice."
Not surprisingly, advocates take issue with these arguments. Counters Worcester Peace Worksí Ksen, "In this country, we donít go around putting people under surveillance because of something they may do in the future." It especially bothers Ksen and his colleagues that Chief Gallagher has been less than forthcoming about his departmentís practice. Immediately after the October vigil, Ksen, Rocheleau, and other activists contacted Gallagher. In a letter dated October 9, 2001, they asked him for "a copy of the WPD policy stating when, where, and under what circumstances groups engaged in free-speech activities are to be photographed." They requested a list of organizations that had been filmed, as well as the names of officers who had seen the photographs. Finally, they wanted the WPD to return the images. All they got from the chief in response, says Ksen, was a rebuff.
Last month, the ACLU in Worcester lent its weight to Ksen and his colleaguesí inquiry by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking details about the police departmentís photo-surveillance program. In a February 6 letter to Chief Gallagher, the ACLU asked the department to identify organizations filmed by police over the past five years. The ACLU also inquired whether specific demonstrations ó from labor pickets and abortion rallies to campus marches ó were subjects of photo surveillance, and whether the WPD had written criteria governing the practice.
On February 12, Gallagher flat-out denied the ACLUís request, and did so in a way that raised more questions than it answered. On the one hand, he stated that the WPD has no document listing groups photographed by police. On the other hand, if such a record did exist, he wrote in the letter, "such disclosure would not be in the public interest." As for their inquiry about which specific rallies were photographed, he contends that the request "is beyond the scope of the public records law.... No information is required to be supplied to you."
Such a response only raises doubts. Publicly, in news accounts, police officials have acknowledged photographing nurses and teachers. Yet in his letter, Gallagher refused to say which other groups, if any, had been photographed. Publicly, officials have said photos are kept in their files. Yet in his letter, the chief left ambiguous the question of whether such records exist. "The answers arenít clear to us," observes the ACLUís Madnick, who appealed to the Massachusetts secretary of stateís public-records division on March 12. Last week, Madnick received a letter from Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote informing the ACLU that his staff is investigating the matter.
Leaving aside the questions of public-record access, Gary Dusoe, a long-time community activist and October peace-vigil participant, sums up the prevailing sentiment: "The answers perplex me. Are the Worcester police just engaging in photo surveillance for the sake of practice? Or is it truly needed in Worcester?"
Chief Gallagher, for his part, has a hard time articulating a defense of the program. When asked whether good police work calls for photographing peaceful, law-abiding protesters, he responds, "Absolutely." When pressed to elaborate, the chief falls back on the just-in-case rationale: "The police use it to be ahead of the curve." Asked whether that means that people who exercise First Amendment rights are more likely to fall into criminal behavior, he replies, "No, not necessarily." So why is such surveillance necessary, then? "It just is," Gallagher insists.