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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Isthmus staff taking photos of Wisconsin Capitol police are threatened with 'obstruction'
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A Capitol Police officer trains his video camera on the photographer.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Capitol Police are actively filming people in the Capitol each day, in efforts that seem designed to intimidate protesters and the general public from being in the space.

But the police officers are not happy to have their own photographs taken.

Two Isthmus employees -- web editor Kristian Knutsen and design artist David Michael Miller -- were warned this week that they were "obstructing" police officers while taking pictures in the public space.

David Erwin, Capitol Police chief, would not talk to an Isthmus reporter -- he referred questions to a Department of Administration spokesperson and then abruptly hung up the phone. Stephanie Marquis, the Department of Administration spokesperson, did not respond to phone calls or an email on Thursday afternoon seeking comment.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, taking photos and recording video of police officers in public is a constitutional right.

Knutsen was photographing protesters on Wednesday, when he noticed three police officers, one with a video camera, recording the events. He says he began to take photographs of them because it was "a striking scene. It's visually interesting."

Other people on the scene also began taking pictures of police. The officer with the video camera responded, Knutsen says, by training his camera on these observers.

While acknowledging that police have as much a right as anyone to take pictures inside the Capitol, Knutsen adds, "When they're repeatedly pointing a camera at someone's face, that's intimidation."

When Knutsen asked the officer with the camera for his name and badge number, another officer warned that he was "obstructing" their work.

Around the same time on Wednesday, a legal observer with the ACLU was threatened with obstruction for watching police in action and attempting to obtain names and badge numbers of officers. (Watch a video of the observer recounting her experience.)

On Thursday, Miller went over to the Capitol at lunchtime -- Isthmus' office is across the street from the Capitol -- to observe the daily sing-along. Miller noticed four police officers watching the crowd and he took photographs of them. Miller began following the officers "at a respectful distance" -- of about 25 feet -- "as they moved from one floor to the next."

"I could see they were perturbed by this, but I kept my distance and said nothing," Miller says.

Miller continues: "As they made their way past one of the darker alcoves in there, they turned around and said I was obstructing them. I pointed out I was walking behind them, and at a good distance. They said they were advising me that I was obstructing police business, and did I understand that. I said yes, and told them I heard they might be issuing citations, and that if they were, I wanted to get a picture. I then mentioned I worked for Isthmus and it might be news if they did arrest someone. They asked to see a press pass. I said I had none, but handed over one of my dog-eared business cards. They asked me if I'd be willing to identify myself to them, and I said I thought I just did."

Miller says he was bothered by how police handled the incident. "They approached me only when I was out of view of other people with cameras, and basically cornered me in a dark alcove where no one else was," he says. "Anyone else who they approached earlier instantly drew a swarm of other people with cameras."

Stacy Harbaugh, communications strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, says many people are concerned about actions of Capitol Police. "There are a lot of people who are concerned that the rules aren't being enforced consistently, so people don't know what to expect from the law enforcement."

Harbaugh says the surveillance is inappropriate for what's occurring in the Capitol -- peaceful protest and tourism. "We don't have criminals in the Capitol, we have people exercising their free speech rights," she says.

She adds that many people will feel intimidated by the police actions. A state worker who wants to participate in the peaceful noontime sing-along "might worry about his job," she says.

"What are police doing with these images?" she asks. "How long are they going to keep them?"

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