AU junior Michael Hoffman, an intern with the D.C. newspaper, The Common Denominator was questioned by Capitol Police Aug. 6 because they considered him a “threat.”
Hoffman’s editor assigned him to take pictures of new security barricades downtown. He stopped at First and C streets, SE and took a picture with the disposable camera he was given that morning. An officer who noticed the flash came over to ask him questions.
The officer asked for his press pass, but Hoffman did not have it with him that day. The officer also asked to see his notebook, which was filled with notes from a police training graduation ceremony he had been covering earlier that day. The officer looked at the notes for a long time Hoffman said, then asked for his social security card and called headquarters.
Hoffman was asked to wait by the officer who had taken his identification until two officers from the Capitol Interrogation Unit arrived to question him.
Hoffman said he wasn’t surprised the officer came over to question him, but “what was unexpected was that they would go overboard.”
Capitol Police spokeswoman Contricia Sellers-Ford, the Capitol Police information office, said she does not feel the officers overstepped their bounds.
“That is what our job is. When we witness someone doing something suspicious, we question them and see if there is something behind it,” she said.
Sellers-Ford also said Hoffman answered questions “inconsistently,” which added to the officers’ suspicion.
Hoffman maintains that he answered all the questions the same.
“I gave them consistently the same answers,” he said. “What I think was that they were trying to pry an answer out of me that wasn’t [there.]”
Sellers-Ford said the officers did what they are supposed to do.
“Everyone is being vigilant, and that’s what we want everyone to do,” she said. “If people are taking pictures and acting suspicious, and an officer doesn’t see that, that’s a problem.”
Hoffman had a different opinion.
“I understand we need security in this type of age, but if you’re a member of the press this is what you do, this is what you’re supposed to cover,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman’s camera was confiscated after he signed a release saying it could be seized. Prints of the pictures were later returned. Sellers-Ford says the only reason the camera was seized was because it wasn’t a digital camera, and the officers couldn’t look through the pictures on the spot.
The Common Denominator’s editor, Kathryn Sinzinger, was also stopped and questioned that day for taking pictures of security barricades. She was only detained for 15 minutes.
In an editorial printed Aug. 9 in The Denominator, Sinzinger criticized the Capitol Police for posing what she felt is a threat to civil liberties.
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has also criticized the Capitol Police for how they treated the reporters.
“The shameful treatment of these two members of the press is typical of police in countries that export terrorists, not of police professionals here, whom we depend on to protect us from terrorism,” Norton said in a press release.
The Denominator would not comment on whether it was taking any legal action against the Capitol Police. It did say it was still waiting for a response to a letter the paper sent the police.
Hoffman said people should consider the effectiveness and necessity of such security measures.
“In this day and age, you need security, but right now we really have to look at if it’s stepping over the bounds,” he said.