It's Friday night, and Terrance Huff is in his element as he and friend Jon Seaton set up a tripod and digital video camera on the sidewalk in front of a nondescript Kroger store in Hamilton.
A father and son arrive in a blue sedan, and Huff starts to interview them between the ratty snarls of aging cars cruising the parking lot.
Huff asks a few opening questions but, like many of the subjects he's interviewed in the past six months, the father and son need little prompting to tell their story. Seaton quietly films as they voice their allegations of misconduct by members of the Hamilton Police Department (HPD).
The four men are gathered in this dingy parking lot to do more than vent their frustrations. If Huff has his way, the interviews filmed tonight could be a vehicle for major change in Hamilton.
"If you want to remedy something, you have to bring attention to it," he says.
A visit to www.tminus321.com explains the story behind Huff's interest in the HPD's alleged misdeeds. In March he was arrested after a confrontation stemming from a traffic stop. He and his ex-girlfriend, who was in the car with him, claim the arresting officers systematically provoked Huff until he lashed back, giving the officers reason to arrest him for menacing and disorderly conduct.
On June 9 Huff was convicted in Hamilton Municipal Court on charges of speeding and menacing but acquitted of disorderly conduct. Sentenced to 30 days on the menacing charge, Huff is free pending appeal. As the charges wound their way through the appeal process, Huff — an actor, screenwriter and videographer — began looking into other residents' complaints against the HPD. His investigation became The HPD Stories, a documentary that alleges police misconduct ranging from altered information on police reports to false arrests for possession of crack cocaine.
The film's well-planned cuts, punchy soundtrack and overall high production quality paint a compelling backdrop for Huff's allegations and set The HPD Stories heads above the typical police complaint. Amazingly, although the film was shot, edited and promoted using off-the-shelf hardware and software; for less than the cost of a decent used car, Huff has shared his message with a worldwide audience.
As word spreads about The HPD Stories, one would expect Hamilton's leaders to take notice. They have, and have essentially dismissed the film.
The documentary's allegations have been investigated and were found to be groundless, according to Mayor Donald Ryan.
"There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Huff ever attempted to corroborate what he was told," Ryan says. "It seems he simply let people tell their stories, as the title suggests."
When asked about his process for corroborating the statements in the film, Huff responds by mentioning the multiple witnesses present at most of the alleged events. Asked if he interviewed witnesses separately to cross-check their stories, he doesn't directly answer.
In some cases, such as Huff's assertion that the HPD is "very staunch about not having" cameras in its patrol cars, the facts indicate otherwise.
"We're getting what we can," says Hamilton Police Chief Neil Ferdelman.
HPD has video cameras in three of its 40 patrol cars and installed cameras throughout its station this year. The department plans to add one in-car camera per year as funds allow, Ferdelman says.
"If any other grant opportunities come up (to pay for additional cameras), we'll take advantage of them," he says.
The chief and mayor repeatedly mention cost as the reason they haven't installed more cameras. The estimated cost to equip all patrol cars is about $220,000.
Huff acknowledges that he learned about the cameras after The HPD Stories was released, but other claims made in the film leave an unsettling amount of room for dispute. In the film, Huff makes the following statement: "If you ask anyone who has ever filed a complaint with the police department if they were satisfied with the way the complaint was handled, they will undoubtedly say no."
The film is based on interviews with about 40 people, making that a bold assumption in a city of 60,000 residents. Suggestions of widespread discontent also seem odd, considering that a 2001 tax levy added nine officers to HPD. Ferdelman says the levy passed with almost 60 percent voter approval.
Now that the film has been released, Huff has further plans. He has sent copies of The HPD Stories to the American Civil Liberties Union and local attorneys and is trying to obtain records that, he says, could substantiate the film's claims. A follow-up film is under development, to be released through T-Minus Productions, Huff and Seaton's production company. ©