Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – Another non-bomb prompted a massive response last week, this one tying up City Hall for hours.
On Tuesday, Jan. 26 at about 9:03 a.m., a City employee came into the Arcata Police Department and reported finding a suspicious device – a tiny metal box with a blinking LED light.
The Parks Dept. employee told officers that he had been working in the area of HealthSPORT in the Community Park when he noticed the device affixed to a light pole with a cable. The concerned employee transported the device to City Hall, where a supervisor told him to take it to APD to be examined.
Officers were unable to identify the suspicious object. so a perimeter was set up. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team was notified and responded.
The bomb technicians X-rayed the device using a bomb robot. It was determined that the object was not an explosive and did not pose a threat.
The item turned out to be a electronic timing device used by contractors to track billable hours at work sites, It was reportedly being used by painters in the area.
Interim Police Chief Tom Chapman said the device had been enclosed in “an old, ratty-looking black box, heightening suspicion.
It was the second non-bomb to trigger a massive official response in two weeks. Chapman had no apologies for that, but said the City will review its procedures for handing suspicious objects and evacuating personnel.
“Obviously it should never have been broought to City Hall,” Chapman said.
Though he lamented that the response was “resource-intensive and disruptive,” he said that “we can’t be wrong, so we will always be overly cautious.”
“If you’re wrong, the consequences are catastrophic,” Chapman said.
APD vs. NCJ
One reporter on the scene, the North Coast Journal's Heidi Walters, had a brief run-in with authorities, prompting a swift protest from Journal Editor Hank Sims. APD Interim Chief Tom Chapman quickly investigated and responded with an apology. Below, the correspondence.
Hank: What the ?
A few minutes ago, APD officers ordered my reporter, Heidi Walters, to stop taking photographs of the bomb scare situation at City Hall. At the time, Walters was standing on the sidewalk opposite City Hall on 7th Street, which was not closed to passers-by, and was in no way interfering with the officers in the course of their duty.
If preventing members of the news media from taking photos in public places is official City policy, I would like to know on what legal authority uses to justify this restriction of a Constitutionally protected activity, and under what circumstances.
If this is not City policy -- if the officers were acting on their own initiative -- then I would ask you to please instruct the department not to restrict the rights of the press and the public, and to make it aware of the legal liability of doing so.
In any case, I would respectfully ask that you write me back within a reasonable amount of time, so that I may be made aware of what City policy is in this matter.
Hank Sims, Editor, North Coast Journal
Jim Ewert, Legal Counsel, California Newspaper Publishers Association
Mayor Alex Stillman
Councilmember Shane Brinton
Councilmember Susan Ornelas
Councilmember Mark Wheetley
Councilmember Michael Winkler
Tom: Oops, our bad
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me on the phone. As we discussed, APD recognizes the issue of public spaces and access either through photographing or watching, etc. At the time this occurred there was a bit of confusion. The request came from the Sheriff’s Deputies through the APD on-scene supervisor that no photographs be taken of the robot. With only partial information our supervisor requested that Heidi not take photos. It was a cordial conversation between Heidi and our officer. Unfortunately our supervisor did not have all the information and was unable to adequately explain to Heidi why she was making the request. We found out later the Sheriff’s Deputies were trying to protect the security of the bomb robot by not having photos taken while it was deployed and in-service.
I sincerely apologize that our supervisor’s request was interpreted as interfering with a reporter. After speaking with the supervisor I am confident she fully understands the right to access by both the media and the public. Please feel free to contact me directly should you have any questions or concerns.
Tom Chapman, Interim Chief of Police
Arcata Police Department