Police Agree to Destroy Videos, Photos and Records
By K. Burnell Evans
Larry Bishop has some answers to his questions about why Albemarle County police denied him access to surveillance footage that investigators took of a demonstration organized by the Occupy Charlottesville movement last February, but he said he's still not satsified.
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The county produced some of the video and still camera footage Thursday that officers shot of the protest outside the Pantops Verizon Wireless store, but not all of it, Bishop said.
Now the Albemarle man and his attorney, Jeff Fogel, are wondering why it took three Freedom of Information Act requests and a civil suit to compel the county's cooperation.
"Things have pretty much been resolved the way we wanted them to be resolved," Bishop said Friday. "But the question that really remains is, why was this done in the first place?"
Bishop said officers told him the video and still footage they were shooting of the protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council was for training purposes. Verizon Wireless is a member of the council.
When Bishop asked to see the material in March, county police Sgt. Darrell Byers told him the footage was exempt from open records disclosure requirements because it related to a criminal investigation.
Chris Brown, the senior assistant county attorney who invited Bishop and Fogel to his office to view the 148 photos and four videos, declined to comment on why police withheld the information initially.
He also declined to outline the process by which those determinations are made or to say why the county was reversing course, citing a department policy prohibiting comment on ongoing court cases.
Fogel, who was among the protesters, said county police claimed that turning over the documents could reveal tactical plans or jeopardize undercover operations.
"That's of concern," he said, pointing out that no one at the protest was accused of criminal activity related to their demonstration.
Fogel said that, on a certain level, he was even more concerned after officials assured him that police were not maintaining dossiers on protesters.
"In court, they couldn't hide behind an exemption that relies on concealing tactical plans of the police department while denying that there was an investigation," he said. "I suspect that their attorney came to the same conclusion."
Police were asked to attend the rally by Verizon's corporate office and at the request of a fusion center, an information-sharing hub established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to coordinate intelligence among agencies, Fogel said.
"[Police] were told that there would be people coming in from Richmond who might be a problem," he said.
Bishop and Fogel said the materials they reviewed all were taken from the same angle. They remembered an officer documenting the protest from a different angle, and have sent Brown a letter asking for confirmation that additional footage exists.
They also asked Brown for assurance that all documentation of the protest will be destroyed.
Bishop said it was too soon to say whether the case would remain open.
The person tasked with processing open records requests for Albemarle County police, Carter Johnson, said she fields an average of five formal inquiries a week from media, lawyers and the public.
For most of those requests, Johnson consults a police handbook on disclosure exemptions, but said that if necessary, she checks with colleagues and representatives from the county Attorney's Office or Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.
She would not say how Bishop's request and Fogel's subsequent requests were routed or who weighed in on the decision to deny them access to the material.