On September 1, we conducted a First Amendment audit of the Salem Police Department in Massachusetts.
After we shot video of a National Grid property with a large natural gas tank on it while we stood a nearby beach, several police officers arrived and detained us for several minutes for no reason.
It all started back on March 23, when two men had their cameras seized by Salem police after taking pictures of the same property from the same beach.
According to the police report, the two men had set off an alarm after touching National Grid’s fence. Police showed up, seized their cameras, and refused to give them back until they saw a video from National Grid that reportedly showed the two men never trespassed on the property.
We followed up on their story after it was reported by making a public records request to the police department. While the department provided the police report, they failed to provide anything else, claiming that searching for more records would be too time-consuming.
We appealed the denial and won, but Salem police again refused to turn over the records.
Now they are claiming we must resubmit part of our request, claiming the videos and pictures we requested are exempt under the post-9/11 public safety exemption to the public records law.
The pictures and video are of the beach and area near National Grid’s property, all of which are in the plain view from public property, and can be easily seen on Google Earth and Google Streetview.
We went to the beach to gather evidence that the area depicted in the video, as well as National Grid’s camera itself, are both visible to the public. Video we shot proves there is no security risk in releasing the records we requested, and we will include this in our upcoming appeal.
We also wanted to see how police would react to more people exercising their First Amendment right to shoot videos in public.
Unlike the men who were previously detained, we did not touch National Grid’s fence. Nevertheless, as we were shooting our video, an employee called down to us and said we were not allowed to record their property. We asked him for his name and if he was the owner of the beach we were standing on.
“Yeah, well, you’re taking a picture of me, so I’m going to have to go in and call the police,” he responded.
And then he, or another worker, did just that.
Instead of telling the worker not to waste police resources with nuisance calls about people exercising their First Amendment rights, the Salem police dispatched four cruisers – yes, four – to the scene.
We were confronted by two patrolmen, Max Zirin and Deni Gaito, and a sergeant, Gilbert Priddy, in the parking lot of a nearby restaurant. The fourth cruiser showed up after we had been detained, but was quickly waved off.
The officers began by asking us questions, but we told them we were not interested in answering them, only asking if we were being detained. They didn’t immediately tell us we were being detained, so we began to walk away until the sergeant stepped in and told us we were being detained.
When we asked why we were being stopped, Priddy replied, “Let me assure that nothing took place over there and then you’ll be on your way.”
Police must have reasonable suspicion that a person has broken a law before they can detain that person, but Priddly decided to reverse things, detaining us so that he could attempt to establish suspicion.
Priddy proceeded to call up National Grid to ask if we had trespassed, something he really should have done before detaining us.
Given that he had to call National Grid, it appears that no one actually accused us of doing anything illegal, which raises the question of why the police responded to the call in the first place.
Priddy refused to tell us his name until after he had called National Grid. All three officers refused to show us their police ID cards, as required by Massachusetts law.
When asked to show their ID cards Zirin said, “No, we don’t do that.”
Gaito said, “I’m not showing you anything.”
And Priddy said, “I don’t need to show you my police ID card.”
We were let go a few minutes later after Priddy lectured us about the imaginary threat of terrorists targeting a natural gas tank in Salem, claiming, “It could be considered a hot target.” He left without answering our questions despite promising earlier in our conversation that he’d do so.
We put in a records request for the call made to the police and other records related to our detention, but the Salem police have not responded.
We reached out to Zirin and asked him to clarify what he meant when he said “we don’t do that” in regards to following the ID card law. He did not respond.
Priddy did respond to an email asking if anyone had accused us of trespassing, but only to say that he didn’t know who he was talking to (despite Maya’s name being in the email). We sent follow up providing more information, but have not yet received any further response.
We have posted phone numbers and the video below.
Police Chief Mary Butler
Sergeant Gilbert Priddy
Voicemail: 978-744-0171 x274
Officer Deni Gaito
Telephone: 978-744-0171 x292
Officer Max Zirin
Voicemail: 978-744-0171 x302
The National Grid gas tank in Salem, Massachusetts is visible on Google Street View.
It’s also visible from Google Earth.