It has become common to see a private citizen whip out a cellphone to record an intense interaction with local police. But at a highly charged meeting in City Hall that drew protesters Thursday, the police officers were the ones recording.
An image of an officer aiming a video camera at protesters at a tense Boston Planning and Development Agency board meeting was posted on Twitter Thursday night. Now, people want to know why the officers were recording a protest inside the city government building, which is already secured by municipal officers.
“It made us feel intimidated — like they were trying to get people to be quiet and not continue voicing their concerns,’’ said Cassie Hurd, a protester with Keep it Real 100 for Affordable Housing and Racial Justice, the group that organized the protest and a sit-in.
The protesters were already upset after the city had shuttered the plaza entrance to City Hall a half hour early on Wednesday and blocked supporters from entering the building.
“It’s outrageous that residents at the [planning] meeting were taped by [Boston police]. I thought City Hall was a #sanctuary4all?, City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is running for mayor, tweeted, referring to Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s offer to give sanctuary to immigrants at City Hall, if need be.
The ACLU of Massachusetts is demanding to see the police recording and has filed a records request for the footage, said Kade Crockford of the ACLU. She said some of the advocates had been peacefully protesting at City Hall, eating pizza, reading poetry, and making their case.
“There is no indication that these folks were involved in any kind of violence,’’ Crockford said. “It’s odd and chilling that the Boston Police Department would send police officers to go and film these protesters who were excising their right to free speech.”
Officer Rachel McGuire, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, said in an e-mail that officers recording crowds is nothing new. She noted that officers have been deployed in the past to the Boston Marathon, parades, and protests such as Occupy Boston to film potential interactions between the police and the public in order “to preserve particular incidents, evidence, and to prevent false allegations.”
She added that the department was informed that Thursday’s meeting on the ninth floor of City Hall featured “a controversial issue that may draw a large crowd.”
Protesters, some breaking out in loud chants, included demonstrators who had held two overnight sit-ins at City Hall to state their opposition to what they say is a lack of affordable housing options in a city development plan for a swath of land between Forest Hills and Jackson Square.
McGuire said the officers who were at the meeting were wearing body cameras as part of a police department pilot program.
“The officers were not filming the entire meeting, but only filming interactions between the police and protesters who were disruptive and asked to leave by the chair,’’ McGuire said.
In each interaction, she said, the individuals involved were informed that they were being recorded by the officers and with the handheld camera.
“In cases where officers are involved and there may be a need to preserve an incident and evidence, the BPD is afforded the same rights to film as the public,’’ she said. “And, as you can see from the tweets, media and other citizens are also exercising their right to film.”
But Corey McMillen, another protester at Thursday’s meeting, said that at the start of the meeting, attendees, including reporters, were asked to declare if they were videotaping the proceedings. The officers did not say they were, he said.
He said that midway through the meeting, he noticed an officer at the back of the meeting room with a video recorder trained on the protesters, and grew nervous because “they had not announced they were taping us,’’ he said.
“Why were [they] secretly recording us?’’ he added.Meghan Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.