5 Things Photographers Should Do When Confronted by Police

by on May 16, 2007

in Learn,Photographers

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]

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{ 18 comments }

1 Rich Legg (LeggNet) May 16, 2007 at 5:40 pm

Good info. The only time I\'ve been approached was one night as I was sitting in my car waiting for my camera to finish a rather long time exposure. The police officer approached me in a very high state of readiness (read: hand on weapon).

As he exited his vehicle and began walking up, I turned on the inside light in my car and placed my hands on the top of the steering wheel (my window was already rolled down). I then politely stated that I was taking photographs and that my camera was on a tripod behind the car. At this point his whole demeanor changed. He checked out the camera with his flashlight (ruining the time exposure), took a quick glance in my car (seeing the rest of my gear) and politely said good night.

No big deal. As you said, regardless of their good or bad attitude, they are in control of a situation. I find it is much better to be polite. I have often wondered though how I would react to a situation like some I have read about where the photog is clearly being harassed….

2 Rich Legg (LeggNet) May 16, 2007 at 10:40 pm

Good info. The only time I’ve been approached was one night as I was sitting in my car waiting for my camera to finish a rather long time exposure. The police officer approached me in a very high state of readiness (read: hand on weapon).

As he exited his vehicle and began walking up, I turned on the inside light in my car and placed my hands on the top of the steering wheel (my window was already rolled down). I then politely stated that I was taking photographs and that my camera was on a tripod behind the car. At this point his whole demeanor changed. He checked out the camera with his flashlight (ruining the time exposure), took a quick glance in my car (seeing the rest of my gear) and politely said good night.

No big deal. As you said, regardless of their good or bad attitude, they are in control of a situation. I find it is much better to be polite. I have often wondered though how I would react to a situation like some I have read about where the photog is clearly being harassed….

3 Paul May 17, 2007 at 4:05 am

Excellent info – please feel free to submit to http://www.photographyvoter.com

4 Paul May 17, 2007 at 9:05 am

Excellent info – please feel free to submit to http://www.photographyvoter.com

5 latoga May 18, 2007 at 6:29 am

All Good Advice…especially the part of using your head and not your mouth. Another small bit I would add to this: use your business cards.

Always carry a few business cards with you. If your a professional, you should already have these. If your an hobbiest, enthusiast or semi-professional, have some made up (their cheap and can be done easily online). At a minimum have your email address and website address on the cards, and of course one of your photos!

When you introduce yourself as a photographer, hand them one of your business cards (the more professional looking, the better in this case with the police). This goes a long way to reducing suspicions. And recommend that they check out your website in a few days to see the photos you took that night.

I have made friends with a number of police officers by just being generous with my business cards…and sold some prints along the way.

6 latoga May 18, 2007 at 11:29 am

All Good Advice…especially the part of using your head and not your mouth. Another small bit I would add to this: use your business cards.

Always carry a few business cards with you. If your a professional, you should already have these. If your an hobbiest, enthusiast or semi-professional, have some made up (their cheap and can be done easily online). At a minimum have your email address and website address on the cards, and of course one of your photos!

When you introduce yourself as a photographer, hand them one of your business cards (the more professional looking, the better in this case with the police). This goes a long way to reducing suspicions. And recommend that they check out your website in a few days to see the photos you took that night.

I have made friends with a number of police officers by just being generous with my business cards…and sold some prints along the way.

7 Eric May 18, 2007 at 4:10 pm

latoga,

That\'s an excellent suggestion on the business cards! You\'re right about the prices. If you\'re into photography and you\'ve got any kind of online presence, there\'s no reason not to have a business card. Thanks for the tip.

Cheers!

8 Eric May 18, 2007 at 9:10 pm

latoga,

That’s an excellent suggestion on the business cards! You’re right about the prices. If you’re into photography and you’ve got any kind of online presence, there’s no reason not to have a business card. Thanks for the tip.

Cheers!

9 Peter May 18, 2007 at 10:25 pm

Great read! I have been asked to move along a couple of times and just done as I was told so as not to cause a fuss. Generally it\'s been police or security simply saying \"You can\'t take photos here\" Never really thought to approach the situation in this manner.

Nice one latoga on the business card call.
Thanks
Pete

10 Peter May 19, 2007 at 3:25 am

Great read! I have been asked to move along a couple of times and just done as I was told so as not to cause a fuss. Generally it’s been police or security simply saying “You can’t take photos here” Never really thought to approach the situation in this manner.

Nice one latoga on the business card call.
Thanks
Pete

11 bob June 22, 2007 at 7:02 pm

I really can\'t agree with #4. If you know you\'re on public property, even if you\'re photographing across the street to a private building, stand your ground (politely). You\'re right, and if this continues, we\'re worse off for it.

12 bob June 23, 2007 at 12:02 am

I really can’t agree with #4. If you know you’re on public property, even if you’re photographing across the street to a private building, stand your ground (politely). You’re right, and if this continues, we’re worse off for it.

13 Rahim June 23, 2007 at 8:29 am

I have to respectfully disagree with #4. I live in chicago and since I\'ve moved here (2 years) I \'ve had CTA/CPD tell me photography in Chicago subways is not allowed which is totally incorrect. When I get CTA/CPD personell tell me its not allowed I\'m respectful but I let them know they are incorrect and have a printed copy of the CTA document that says so. My rights are just that, mine. Im not going to be like a sheep and let anyone take them from me.

14 Rahim June 23, 2007 at 1:29 pm

I have to respectfully disagree with #4. I live in chicago and since I’ve moved here (2+ years) I ‘ve had CTA/CPD tell me photography in Chicago subways is not allowed which is totally incorrect. When I get CTA/CPD personell tell me its not allowed I’m respectful but I let them know they are incorrect and have a printed copy of the CTA document that says so. My rights are just that, mine. Im not going to be like a sheep and let anyone take them from me.

15 Eric June 23, 2007 at 3:03 pm

Bob and Rahim,

I\'m inclined to agree with you to a point. My question to you, however, is are you willing to go to jail for \"standing your ground\"? Is it worth it?

It\'s not worth going to jail for me. Personally, I would probably debate the point with the officer (politely, as Bob says); however, I\'m not going to stand my ground in the face of going to jail. That\'s where I think #5 is the better route to take.

Rahim, makes an excellent point about having official documents that state the policy of the particular agency that you might encounter. I think that\'s a great proactive way to stay ahead of the game.

Thanks for the posts guys. These are excellent points that you raise. I\'ll be delighted to hear any additional thoughts that you have.

16 Eric June 23, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Bob and Rahim,

I’m inclined to agree with you to a point. My question to you, however, is are you willing to go to jail for “standing your ground”? Is it worth it?

It’s not worth going to jail for me. Personally, I would probably debate the point with the officer (politely, as Bob says); however, I’m not going to stand my ground in the face of going to jail. That’s where I think #5 is the better route to take.

Rahim, makes an excellent point about having official documents that state the policy of the particular agency that you might encounter. I think that’s a great proactive way to stay ahead of the game.

Thanks for the posts guys. These are excellent points that you raise. I’ll be delighted to hear any additional thoughts that you have.

17 Breakabout November 18, 2007 at 2:31 am

Keeping your cool and being polite is always very good advice when dealing with police. However, you do have to draw the line someplace. While many cops are nice people, there is a certain element that are bullies. I have been a party to, or know if incidents, where cops not only demanded that the picture taking stop, but also wanted me to surrender my film/cards or wipe them clean in their presence.
Be polite, but when it comes to the point of having or rights abridged, stand your ground. You’re unlikely to spend any time in jail – the last thing a bully, or just a cop who isn’t sure of himself, wants is to have to arrest you. Try demanding they arrest you and see how fast they back down. (Of course, you better be certain you are within your rights.)
If you keep backing down, it only validates the cop’s incorrect assumptions and actions. And for that, the next photographer they meet is not going to thank you.

18 santa June 11, 2009 at 12:36 pm

what horrible advice. if everyone did this, police would feel free to continue to order people to not take photographs. unless people do stand up to the police and refuse to stop taking photographs, there will be no end to this stupidity. Be polite but refuse to stop. If you with your family on vacation I totally “get” the need to submit, but local photographers in particular need to stand firm and fight it if they possibly can do so.

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