Eyes of Darby are upon you 

Big-time surveillance comes to small-town Montana

Last year, Darby town Marshal Larry Rose and then-Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson approached the city of Darby—population 710, an hour-plus south of Missoula—with a proposal: install a video surveillance camera on Main Street.

From a crime-fighting point of view, it wasn’t a bad idea. Main Street Darby is also US 93, and a camera panning those two lanes would record evidence of pretty much anything driving north or south through southwestern Montana, never mind drunks stumbling out of the several bars, teenagers drinking beer on the corners and burglars breaking into the ATM on Main’s brief stretch.

Still, Mayor Forest Hayes wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, sensing that it might prove a divisive issue among townsfolk perhaps already too inescapably intimate with the comings and goings of their neighbors. Sheriff Johnson let the proposal drop in deference to Hayes’ misgivings and that was that.

Until six or so months ago, when Marshal Rose—himself a Main Street business owner, in addition to having served as Darby’s equivalent of police chief for the past 19 years—took up a collection from a number of private investors, including fellow Main Street business owners, and installed the camera himself on the sign for his daughter’s Lewis and Clark Tradiing Post and Iron Wood Floral & Gifts at 309 N. Main.

And that was that again until a few weeks ago, when transplanted Seattleite Julie Mortensen found out it was there and started asking everyone she ran into what they thought about that. For all anyone knew, and as she had heard, and as fellow law enforcement personnel later suggested, the video fed directly into Larry Rose’s private residence, and she didn’t much relish the prospect of the town cop sitting at home in his underwear scanning Main Street looking for someone to pop. At least, she thought, people ought to know the camera was there.

Larry Rose has a reputation as a stickler. The joke around town is that he once gave his wife a ticket. That’s unconfirmed, but it is true that several years ago, Late Show host David Letterman was in Darby scouting land, heard through the grapevine, and made a crack about that hardass Darby Marshal Larry Rose on national TV. The next time Letterman drove through, Rose popped him for doing 38 in a 25 zone. Letterman later bought near Choteau.

On Friday, May 30, Larry Rose barreled around the corner of Iron Wood Floral & Gifts bellowing “You got a problem?” at Mortensen and a reporter watching his camera from the sidewalk. After an introduction, Mortensen was asked to leave the property and Rose agreed to talk inside the store.

First off, he said, one should do a little research into the background of the complainers before taking their complaints seriously. Specifically, Rose suggested, a reporter should look into the deal with the complainer’s husband, who—Mortensen later confirmed—was presently in jail for busting parole, Rose having put him there. Julie, Rose said, is “not a reliable source.”

And also, why would a newspaper in Missoula or anywhere else want to single out Larry Rose for unflattering scrutiny? There’s nothing illegal about private business owners installing surveillance cameras on their property. The city has no money in the camera and neither does the county, he said—“nothing to do with it, they’re not involved”—both of which facts are confirmed by the respective governments. Besides, there are cameras everywhere in Darby. There are cameras at People’s Market, there are cameras at the Ole’s, there are cameras in most of the bars, the banks, the gas stations. Europe’s doing it, all the big cities are doing it.

“I don’t understand. I mean there’s cameras all over the place. I wonder why this one? It’s not a very interesting subject. You know there’s cameras all over the place.”

Rose declined to name his fellow investors, and he declined to show a reporter the feed or say where it went, citing investor privacy. The camera swivels, he said, so it can look both ways, and it has zoom capabilities, but he seemed adamant that the camera does not have the resolution to identify license plate numbers. He wouldn’t say what he paid for it, though he later noted that electronics prices are falling all the time, and a good system can now be had in the ballpark of $4000. He didn’t want the camera photographed—a half-sphere of smoky plastic mounted to the underside of the sign—for fear of attracting vandals, but later suggested that public knowledge of its whereabouts might help deter crime in range of the camera eye. To the extent that his camera has inherent law enforcement potential, Rose said, it may someday prove useful in solving a crime that strays into its view-finder. So far, he says, that hasn’t happened. And he is certainly not sitting at home in his underwear watching live feeds of Main Street and looking for trouble.

“Nobody would sit and watch a video. That’s the most boring thing in the world.”

Larry Rose called later and apologized to the reporter for being rude to Julie Mortensen: “Sorry I got a little bit…I was pretty huffy about the whole thing. Just the idea of the nitpicking like that, on a little thing like that.”

Mortensen remains constitutionally incapable of such blithitude at the prospect of her paid protectors, acting as private citizens, enjoying unfettered access to running records of the citizenry’s daily eating, banking, drinking, shopping, talking, walking and filling ’er up habits in downtown Darby. She impugns not Rose, but the principle.

Dan Wagonmann pastors Darby’s Grace Chapel (“we meet in the clubhouse”), and he impugns it too.

“Anything piped in to a private home, whether he’s a policeman or not, I get a little nervous about that. Like everybody says, as long as you’re doing what’s right, you don’t have anything to worry about. But a guy could make a case for a lot of things…and it gets a little touch and go. You go into a store and it says you are being surveilled, this store has cameras, you understand that. But you’ve got to have a big sign up there that says ‘Larry Rose is watching you.’”

Heather Russell, who says she moved to Conner because she gets in trouble in Darby, didn’t care who knew what she thought at the Post Office last Friday: “I think it’s bullshit. It’s entrapment.”

Loretta Ortiz, at home just a short walk off Main, doesn’t like the camera because she thinks it “takes us too close to homeland security and losing all our rights.

“Because of Larry,” she says, “I do feel secure. But I don’t think he needs it.”

And then there was Nametag, a grocery checker, who didn’t wish to be named. She didn’t have a problem with Larry Rose’s eye on Main Street. Why on earth would she? She swung her arm around the perimeter of the ceiling at People’s. “I’m on camera all day.”

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