On September 1, we were wrongfully detained by police after shooting video of a natural gas tank in Salem, Massachusetts. Since we first reported on that incident, we have learned that the dispatcher who sent cops after us fabricated information about us.
In September, we visited a small public beach in Salem to shoot video of the neighboring National Grid property while following up on a story about two men whose cameras were seized by police after they took pictures of the site.
An employee approached us a few minutes later and told us that we were not allowed to take pictures of the property. He then told us he was going to report us to the police.
Soon, four police cruisers showed up, and three of the officers detained us for several minutes in a nearby parking lot. The officers, who apparently thought they were in a Hollywood movie because we were recording them, said they were worried about us committing a terror attack against the National Grid property.
After making a public records request, we obtained copies of the 911 call placed by the National Grid employee, the dispatcher audio, and the police report.
In his call, National Grid employee Ron Sanford calmly told the dispatcher that were next to the property, not on it. The details he provided should have ruled out any suspicion of trespass or other criminal activity on our part. In fact, Sanford only requested that an officer visit him to document his report.
After speaking with Sanford, the dispatcher radioed a fabricated story to police, telling them we had been “confrontational” with National Grid's “security” after we had been told to leave – something Sanford never said. The dispatcher also failed to mention that we never set foot on National Grid's property.
The dispatcher's fabricated story may explain why the police chose to detain us. When they first approached us, one of the officers, Max Zirin, began by accusing us of being “confrontational with security,” just as the dispatcher had.
Sergeant Gilbert Priddy, one of the responding officers, refused to let us leave until he called the dispatcher back to find out if we had trespassed on National Grid's property – something Priddy should have confirmed with the dispatcher before detaining us.
But thanks to this second dispatcher call, we learned what the police consider “confrontational” to mean.
After Priddy asked the dispatcher to explain to him exactly what happened between us and Stanford, the dispatcher reiterated his previous story, saying that we were “very confrontational.”
“Yeah, all my rights—the whole nine yards,” Priddy responded.
Evidently Priddy considers it “confrontational” to exercise your First Amendment rights.
Apparently the dispatcher does as well: “Yeah, oh yeah,” he replied, affirming Priddy's imaginary version of the incident.
It's clear that the Salem Police Department has a huge problem. Dispatchers shouldn't fabricate information, especially information that is likely to put police on edge and thereby create danger for the public. And police shouldn't detain people who aren't suspected of crimes simply because they are shooting videos in public.
We reached out to Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and asked her to look into these issues. Dominick Pangallo, the mayor's chief of staff, said they are “taking the matter under review.”