City probes harassing behavior toward parking officers
By Kyle Jarvis
The Keene Sentinel | April 12,2013
KEENE, N.H. — Keene has its own version of parking wars.
City officials say members of a local pro-liberty group have gone too far in tailing city parking enforcement officers. And the city hired a former police officer to videotape evidence of what’s been happening.
For weeks, people associated with the group Free Keene have patrolled city streets, keeping an eye out for enforcement officers and getting ahead of them to plug expiring parking meters with change. In most cases, the so-called “Robin Hooders” leave a business card on the vehicle’s windshield, with a picture of a cartoon Robin Hood on one side, and a message on the other that reads, “Your meter expired! However, we saved you from the king’s tariff!”
They have also followed officers during their routes. And some city officials say the group’s behavior toward the officers just is too much.
“It’s harassing behavior,” said City Manager John A. MacLean. “By that I mean following someone with a camera, circling them, following them every day, up and down the street, and that’s been taking place.”
To determine whether harassing behavior was occurring, city officials hired Peter S. “Sturdy” Thomas, a former Keene police captain, to follow and videotape the Robin Hooders in the act, MacLean said.
“The fact that the (Robin Hooder) is circling, impeding, and standing on top of another person and talking at them and following them step by step, the concern the city has is that it’s a public safety issue,” MacLean said. “If several people are doing that, internally (the parking officer is) going to feel a little upset; you might walk a little faster, put your head down, and maybe you don’t see a car coming.
“You also have people engaged in harassing behavior, absorbed in what they’re up to, and that could be dangerous for them as well. And last, the public in general is concerned about this and doesn’t like it, and could get engaged, could lose their focus, possibly stepping out in front of a car, or getting involved in an altercation.”
Keene Human Resources Director William A. Prokop said Thomas spent 46.5 hours over roughly a 3½-week period beginning in mid-March videotaping the Robin Hooders, and was paid a total of $1,339.67 for his work.
That money came out of the city’s safety and security budget. The city has used Thomas before to do background investigations of prospective city employees, he said.
Prokop said it’s the behavior alone that has city officials concerned, and not the fact that the Robin Hooders are preventing motorists from getting parking tickets.
“That part does not bother us or concern us at all,” he said. “If people want to put money in the meters, that’s fine, good for them. But when our employees can’t take a bathroom break without having someone waiting for them to start up again, that’s a concern.”
Prokop said that he’s received several emails from citizens asking what city officials would do about this, and that city employees other than parking officers have also expressed concerns.
“They considered this harassment and questioned whether it could spill over into their jobs, in addition to employees themselves who were feeling they were being harassed,” he said.
But Ian B. Freeman, a Free Keene blogger who hosts the local radio show “Free Talk Live,” called allegations of harassing behavior “ridiculous.”
“I know the people on the streets, and everybody’s very friendly to the parking enforcers,” he said. “Some days the parking enforcers are chatty, and some days they’re grumpy. But I’ve only seen the Robin Hooders act in a friendly manner towards these people.”
Freeman said 1,500 cards were given out in March alone, and that while some Robin Hooders are Free State Project members or Free Keene bloggers, many are not.
And while the Robin Hooders do usually carry video cameras, Freeman said it’s for accountability purposes only, to make sure their actions are documented to prevent parking enforcers or anyone else from making false claims against them.
Robin Hooders do sometimes wait for parking enforcers to return from breaks, Freeman said, because their objective is to get ahead of them to prevent parking tickets from being issued.
“If they don’t like it, they should shut down the parking enforcement department,” he said. “That would solve the problem, and I think that would make people very happy.”
Freeman believes the parking enforcement operation is unnecessary, which is similar to how he feels about most government operations.
“They have to maintain the illusion of legitimacy, because essentially government is a coercive monopoly; if you don’t do what they say, they’re going to possibly put you in a cage (jail).”
Free Keene has ruffled feathers in the community several times, most notably in protesting drug laws by holding daily “4:20” marijuana smoking sessions in Keene’s Central Square, approaching Keene Middle School students in protest of public education and even hosting a “Keene City Council drinking game” to protest open container laws.
Freeman said most of the response from the public to the “Robin Hood” effort has been positive.
“Thank you Robin Hood, very clever, and with a welcome sense of humor,” one poster said on the group’s Facebook page.
“Thanks for filling my meter — awesome!” said another.
The video evidence Thomas recorded was recently turned over to the city’s legal department, which is reviewing the material to determine whether harassing behavior occurred, Prokop said.
A meeting later this week or early next week between MacLean, city attorneys and Prokop will help determine city officials’ next step, Prokop said.