Web helps track down Woodstock vandals

The New York State Police turned to the World Wide Web as a tool to help round up a small group of vandals and looters who came to Woodstock '99 and turned the three-day music festival into a riot. Within hours of posting photos on the Internet, however, the police encountered resistance from an unlikely source: the free press.

Woodstock '99 began peacefully but culminated with a spate of criminal activity, including arson, property destruction and sexual assault. The music festival drew more than 225,000 spectators to Rome, N.Y., from all parts of the country, a situation that frustrated local police looking for witnesses and suspects.

As a result, police officials decided last Friday to put up 14 photographs on the New York State Police Web site www.troopers.state.ny.us) and ask for help from the general public in identifying the culprits.

The photos, taken by local press photographers, appeared in a variety of media outlets over several days and showed concert goers looting trucks, rifling an automated teller machine and vandalizing sound equipment and the 3-mile-long "Peace Wall."

But the troopers' Web justice scheme was nearly stymied by the accusation of copyright violation by the Associated Press, whose staff had taken 10 of the 14 photos. Sam Boyle, chief of the AP's New York City bureau, demanded that the photos be removed, citing copyright infringement and a violation of the separation of journalism and law enforcement.

Glenn Valle, chief counsel for the New York State Police, has refused to take the photos down. "We're going to continue at this point as we don't feel there's any copyright infringement," Valle said, referencing a section of federal law that limits a copyright holder's specific right of copyright material when it is used for nonprofit educational purposes.

He said police have used paper fliers and door-to-door inquiries to try to identify suspects shown in newspaper photographs. To his knowledge, media outlets have never objected.

The New York experiment is not without precedent. Last March, officials in East Lansing, Mich., posted photos on their Web site of the Michigan State University riots that took place after an NCAA men's basketball Final Four game. The effort, made easier by the fact that many of the rioters were local students, resulted in 90 arrests.

Lt. Jamie Mills, a New York State Police spokeswoman, noted that the Web site has received more than 4,200 hits since last week. It has generated a number of e-mails containing confidential tips to the force's Crime Watch Bureau, "although nothing conclusive as yet," she said.

The police, she added, also are using the site to ask the general public to contribute any photographs that might shed light on other criminal activity.

-- Heather Hayes

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