It’s one thing to read articles over and over about police harassing innocent people for taking photos in public. It’s quite another to experience it yourself and have an angry cop threaten to seize my camera, but that happened to me Saturday.
It’s all for the children, you know.
I was at the Buck Creek Festival in Helena, Ala., taking photos on a freelance assignment from a newspaper. The managing editor of the paper had asked me to get “candid shots, photos of kids enjoying the event’s attractions, etc.” In other words, it was very typical photography for a public event. It wasn’t a big deal.
After I’d been shooting a little more than an hour, a police lieutenant from the Helena Police Department approached me. He said that he had received reports that I was taking pictures, including pictures of children. Considering the fact that I’d been walking around with my Canon T3i for the past hour — openly taking pictures and talking to random people — it’s clear that this wasn’t exactly something I was trying to hide.
I acknowledged it and asked what the problem was.
(In recounting the narrative from here, I am reconstructing it to the best of my memory’s ability, but since I didn’t take notes or record it, the details might be jumbled or out of order, mostly because I was rattled by the incident. The essence of the narrative is correct, though.)
The cop said he had gotten four reports that I had been taking pictures — including pictures of kids. He said he hadn’t done anything about it the first three times it was reported, but he had a duty now to find out what I was doing and “send you on your way.”
I asked why that was and what law I was supposed to have broken. He couldn’t answer that, but he didn’t like me asking. I told him that I was shooting pictures for a newspaper and I told him which one. That shouldn’t have mattered, because public photography is perfectly legal whether you’re a newspaper employee or just shooting pictures for yourself.
It was about this point that he threatened to seize my camera.
I told him that seizing my camera would be illegal, because I had done nothing wrong and there wasn’t even a reasonable suspicion that any crime had been committed. This made him angrier. He said he had probable cause to seize the camera, so I asked him again what crime he had reason to believe I had broken.
Do you know what someone looks like when he’s angry but he’s trying to control it — and the muscles around the lips tighten and the lips lose their color? That’s the way he looked at this point. He seemed furious that I dared to ask him what he thought I was doing wrong.
He told me that I was “coping an attitude” and trying to be a “roadside lawyer.” I told him I’m not a lawyer and neither is he, but I do know what my rights are. Public photography isn’t a crime and he had absolutely no reason to think I had committed a crime.
The lieutenant demanded to see my identification and he called my driver’s license in on police radio to have it checked. So even though I had done nothing wrong and he couldn’t tell me any reason that he might believe otherwise, he ran my license through some database. Maybe I’m now marked as a troublemaker. Who knows?
He told me that if I were going to take pictures at something like this, I had to have a press ID, but if I come to someplace like this dressed in all black — I was wearing a black t-shirt and black sweats, which must be terrifying in his world — without a press ID, I was subject to having my camera seized.
I reminded him again that public photography isn’t a crime and that I would have been just as free to take these pictures if I were taking them for myself instead of for a newspaper. He wasn’t listening. He was threatening and telling me that he had a “duty” to check me out and “send you on your way.”
At that point, I realized that there was nothing to be gained from continuing the conversation. I simply asked, “Am I free to go?”
He looked annoyed, but said I was free to leave. I left before he got angry enough to trump up a charge and arrest me.
I left, but I was both angry and shaken up by the incident. I didn’t think to get the guy’s name, simply because I had been rattled. It’s not every day that I have a confrontation with an angry man who has a gun and a badge and a bad attitude. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have started recording audio or video of the incident on my iPhone as soon as it happened, but that didn’t occur to me until afterward.
What am I going to go about it?
I don’t know, but probably nothing. His police superiors and political superiors would back him up. They would invoke children and their duty to protect kids, even though they wouldn’t be able to say what law I had broken or what law they suspected I had broken.
I’m left concerned that it might affect my relationship with a newspaper client. The newspaper obviously doesn’t want problems with local police departments, so I have no idea how its management might react to this. I reported the basics of the confrontation to the paper’s managing editor by email as soon as I got back to my car, but I haven’t heard from him (and have no idea whether he will comment on it).
So not only did this arrogant cop upset my afternoon, but I’m left wondering whether it will cost me money. This was my first freelance photography assignment for this particular newspaper. If I never get another assignment, I will always wonder whether this lieutenant cost me money.
We live in a paranoid society. The public is paranoid and police are doubly paranoid. But that doesn’t change what the law allows. I have the right to take pictures in public without fear of someone with a gun and a badge threatening to seize my camera. I sympathize with police who get complaints from paranoid people — if he really did get the complaints he claims — and he has every right to ask someone like me a question if he wants.
But if he has no reason to believe that a crime has been committed — and he obviously didn’t — the correct response to those people is, “Well, sir, I’ll ask the guy why he’s taking pictures, I guess, but since there’s no law against what he’s doing, I can’t stop him. We have no reason to think he’s doing anything wrong.”
People like to talk about supporting freedom, but when push comes to shove, a lot of them don’t want to allow other people freedom. They want a police state that panders to their paranoia. That’s what this confrontation was about.
In a very real way, this confrontation has had a chilling effect on my freedom. As it turned out, I wasn’t arrested and he didn’t carry out his threat to seize my camera. But the next time I think about taking pictures in public, I might simply leave the camera hidden instead of risk running into somebody who doesn’t understand the law and his proper authority.
Unless I do something wrong, I simply want to be left alone.