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The man behind the camera

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Chad A. Claflin’s impromptu video interview of Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns cost him his job.

At approximately 7:15 a.m. Tuesday, Mr. Claflin was working at the Watertown Home Depot when he saw Mr. Burns in uniform shopping.

Armed with a cellphone camera and the desire to ask the county’s top law enforcement officer a few questions, Mr. Claflin set aside the flooring machine he was operating and approached Mr. Burns.

His lens careened over the steel shelves before coming to rest on an initially baffled Mr. Burns.

The nervous tension in Mr. Claflin’s voice is apparent as he opened with a seemingly innocuous lead-in, “I had a question I didn’t know if you could answer ...” before firing off questions about regulations governing shopping in uniform and carrying a sidearm while off duty, clearly attempting to catch the sheriff in a misstep.

As the questions became more and more confrontational, Mr. Burns, who tried to diffuse the situation with humor at first, raised his finger and took a step toward Mr. Claflin after being interrogated about using his official vehicle for personal errands.

“OK, let me tell you something about me. I’m the sheriff. I have a car assigned to me and it goes with me any place I go. If you’ve got a problem, let’s you and I go over and see your store manager,” he said before Mr. Claflin revealed that he worked for Kellermeyer Bergensons Services providing cleaning services at the Watertown Home Depot location.

Mr. Claflin uploaded the minute-and-19-second video, which he said he recorded as a precaution, to YouTube later that day and it was picked up by the Watertown news aggregation service newzjunky.com on Wednesday.

By noon that day, it seemed as if everyone in the city had seen it, and Mr. Claflin was hailed as everything from a hero to a moron. He was fired that evening.

But the 29-year old resident of Watertown said that he never meant the video to go viral.

He insists that his desire to approach the sheriff with his questions was not an attempt to “ambush” or embarrass the sheriff; he was merely asking an elected official questions as a concerned constituent.

“I didn’t really consider it so much as an interview so much as impromptu questions for a public official,” Mr. Claflin said. “I’m not a journalist. I don’t proclaim to be a journalist. I did happen to read the mayor’s blog that said ‘ambush journalist’ — I think that’s a joke.”

As of Sunday, the YouTube video had 11,094 views, 97 comments, 43 likes and 40 dislikes. Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham’s blog post about the video received at least 80 comments, not counting some the mayor deleted because he considered them too offensive.

An overwhelming majority of the comments seem to agree that Mr. Claflin did not approach Mr. Burns in a manner conducive to getting answers.

Mr. Claflin acknowledged that his method may not have been the best but said that he was merely asking the same questions that many others might want to ask.

The confrontation in Home Depot comes at an inopportune moment in the sheriff’s career, as a number of incidents of misconduct within his department have surfaced over the past year. But if politics makes strange bedfellows, ambush journalism, intentional or not, seems to make for even more astonishing allegiances.

Jefferson County legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of an outside investigation of the Sheriff’s Department, said he felt sympathy for Mr. Burns.

“I don’t find fault with the sheriff. I don’t know what the guy was trying to get at. ... I don’t suggest that anybody who wants answers approach it in that way,” Mr. Gray said.

And Mr. Graham said that “manners do matter.”

“We’ve all been put in those situations,” the mayor said of public servants. “It’s just that nowadays six billion people can see it on the Internet.”

Mr. Burns and County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III were not available for comment over the weekend.

A high school dropout, Mr. Claflin worked six days a week at Home Depot, earning roughly $9 an hour.

Now, unsatisfied with the answers he received from the sheriff, vilified on the Internet and out of work, Mr. Claflin said that he will start looking for a new job but that he doesn’t have any regrets about what he did.

“You shouldn’t be afraid to walk up and question your sheriff,” Mr. Claflin said. “To me that’s your job as a resident of that county — make sure that what he’s doing is legal. If not, who’s going to keep him accountable?”

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