This has been a real hot topic since 9/11. There have been some high profile confrontations between photographers and police, such as this one reported by Thomas Hawk (a follow-up post is here). There’s also a growing concern in the photography community that police are overstepping their bounds and interfering with photographers’ rights. I decided to address this situation by seeking input on the subject from a former police officer and fellow photographer, who has received “calls” to “check out” photographers taking photos at various locations. As a result, I’m passing along these five things you should do when the police come to check you out while shooting (with your camera, of course) something in public.
1. When approached by the police, understand that there is a probably a specific reason they are confronting you about what you are doing. For example, the police officer received a call from his dispatcher to “check out” a suspicious person that was taking photographs at an interstate overpass. He actually questioned the dispatcher on what was suspicious about that person. The dispatcher said an anonymous caller did not provide further information. While you and I both know the photographer was probably just taking some shots of traffic (maybe some light streams like Rich Legg’s) and was doing nothing “suspicious”, the officer’s supervisor still ordered him to “check it out.” The officer was forced to reluctantly respond. Regardless of how offended you may be, the officer “checking you out” is just doing what he was asked (or told) to do because someone doesn’t understand why photographers take photos in public.
2. Be polite. Seriously, this is an easy one here guys. You want to fight? Go ahead, be a jerk. Let your fellow photographers thank you in advance the next time that cop gets called to “check out” a photographer. Even if the cop is a hot-head right off the bat, try being nice. Isn’t it better to cool him down and help him recognize that you’re just taking pictures than stirring the pot. I know a lot of cops. Most are great guys (and girls). Some are real jerks. Some may just be irritated that they’ve got to stop working on the 5-car accident report to answer a call about a suspicious photographer.
3. Identify yourself and what you’re doing. This is probably in response to the first question the officer asks. Remember number 2 here as well.
Officer: Hey, we got a call about you taking pictures here. What exactly are you doing?
Photographer: Hi Officer. My name is Joe Photographer. I’m a student at _____ and I’m trying to get a good shot of this ____ for my project. Or, I’m doing some freelance work and am going to submit it to [name local paper]. Or, I’m taking pictures for a photography contest in Popular Photography magazine. Or, my wife loves this building and I want to get a good evening shot of it and surprise her with a large print for mother’s day. Or, . . . . You get the idea.
Officer: Ok. Be careful and don’t get out in traffic.
By being polite, honest and genuine, it’s more likely that the officer will leave you to your camera and tell dispatch that you’re ok. Besides, why do you care what dispatch thinks. You just get your shot.
4. Comply with the officer’s requests. I understand you may want to stop reading here and tell me to grow a pair. Bear with me for a moment though. Consider that you are shooting a building, be it a government building, a library or whatever. Officer Nobrains says you need to pack it up and move along. You protest with a few choice words and all of the sudden you’re in the back of the Nobrains’ police cruiser. Have your rights been violated? Maybe. Will you win in your criminal case for your charge of disorderly conduct? Maybe, maybe not. Will you receive compensation for your losses? Not unless you file a civil action against the officer and department AND win that case too. Will you incur a ridiculous amount of attorney’s fees? Of course. In fact, your attorney may just thank you for running your mouth rather than returning later for the shot.
Now, what if you were to just leave? No jail. No attorney’s fees. No criminal record. But still no shot? So, how do you right this wrong? Use your head and not your mouth, which leads me to my fifth and final point.
5. Get the officer’s name and badge/ID number. Look to Officer Nobrains’ name plate that is worn on his uniform and get his badge number. These two items will come in handy later. Even if the officer is nice and doesn’t ask you to leave or do something that you don’t feel you should be forced to do or refrain from, you might consider getting this info. You should also make sure you know which department the officer works in. For instance, if you’re in the city limits, it’s possible that you could be approached by a City or County officer.
Now that you’ve got the info and you’ve missed your shot, what should you do? I recommend that you call the officer’s immediate supervisor the following day – don’t call while you’re still hot. Be professional and explain the circumstances under which you encountered the officer. Ask for the supervisor’s comments on the officer’s conduct. Most likely he’ll want to talk to the officer in order to get “his version” and perhaps review the officer’s in-car camera if it’s equipped with one. This is where being polite at the scene comes in handy. If you come across as the nice guy and the officer is the jerk, a good supervisor will jump his crawl and apologize to you. After you hear the supervisor’s comments on the subject, thank him for looking into the matter if you’re satisfied or ask for his supervisor’s contact information if you’re not. Repeat this process up the chain until you receive a satisfactory explanation or result. Along the way, if the discussions with the supervisory chain proves ineffective, consider speaking the department’s Internal Affairs Unit. I would suggest using this as a last resort or if the officer’s actions were particularly egregious.
Note, I also suggested that you get the officer’s name and info if he was Officer Niceguy. Consider making the same call to the supervisor to compliment the officer’s respect to your rights. Regardless of the type of encounter, consider reaching out through some of the community policing programs to educate or open a dialogue with police officers with regard to photographer’s rights. It can never be a bad thing for both sides to understand where the other is coming from. And open communication can resolve all kinds of conflicts before they ever start.
Finally, let me throw this disclaimer out there. Some of you may completely disagree with these recommendations. My points serve to diffuse a potentially hostile situation and suggest that you comply with a police officer’s request (even if he/she is clearly wrong). If you are willing to go to jail for your “rights” then, by all means, launch your jihad for photographer’s rights. I submit to you, however, that you are going about it the wrong way. Cooperation and education of our police regarding the rights of photographers is more effective than further provoking a hostile situation.
[tags]police, photographers, rights, jail, arrest[/tags]