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The First Amendment, Photography and the Police
Photos from the Scene
Introduction: An Alarming Trend
Over the past few years, and especially since the birth of Occupy Wall Street movement a year ago, photographers, both professional and amateur, have been aggressively approached by the police when observed photographing their activities. The reasoning behind this alarming trend is the focus of much speculation such as "what are they trying to hide". Is this the new culture of law enforcement in response to the idea that photographers are "terrorists" or is it the behavior of a minute few that do not represent the views of law enforcement as a whole. In my experience, I lean toward the latter explanation, at least here in Boston. My first negative experience with a police officer while shooting an assignment came on Monday September 17, 2012 at a car accident involving a police cruiser. In the back of my mind I have always expected that one day I would encounter a "rogue" officer but with 28 years in the field without any type of confrontation with the police in any community, I was hoping to keep that streak alive. Here is the background on Monday's incident.
The Incident: West Roxbury Monday Morning
The morning started out busier than usual with an extraordinary amount of car accidents in the Roslindale/West Roxbury section of Boston. With a response time of about 5 minutes to each of these incidents, I obviously went, mostly to practice using video as a new medium for me. The first crash happened on South Street in Roslindale and pretty much was just a fender bender. Still I broke out my video camera, took some footage practicing zooming and clip length, joked around with a few police officers and firefighters and then left to go practice editing on the computer. No big deal and kind of boring but still fun social interaction.
As I was working on the video edit, the scanner came alive with an off duty officer trying to make an arrest with possibly a gun involved on the VFW Parkway. This got my attention but had no intentions of responding as this photographer has a serious allergic reaction to getting shot. Still the adrenaline was pumping and I was waiting to hear the outcome. Then it happened.
The radio transmission you never want to hear, a cruiser was in a crash responding to the call and EMS was needed on the VFW Parkway and LaGrange Street. This particular intersection is the scene of many crashes weekly with most being property damage only. However, this one was different as the cruiser was traveling at a high rate of speed to assist a brother officer in trouble and the fact that there is little time to react at that intersection told me this could be bad. I grabbed my gear, started to the scene and listened to the radio transmissions from the scene. In my Hubs about working in news photography, I have always stressed the importance of monitoring the scanner en route to an incident and this played an important role on how I approached the scene in time to get good photos and also not have to park in a place that would further the already congested traffic.
With that done and my car on a side street out of the way, I walked to the scene which was quite active as you can imagine. The first thing I noticed was the other vehicle involved which was a Volvo crossover SUV. There was substantial front end damage and I grabbed a few photos of that. It took a few seconds to take in the entire scene and locate the cruiser that was involved as it was up on the sidewalk about 30-35 feet away from the other car that was in the intersection. Noticing the firefighters, paramedics and police officers working on removing the injured officer, I walked onto the median strip to take photos from a distance of about 30 feet. All the while there were several Boston officers and Troopers on scene that acknowledged me with a nod as we have been at many crash and fire scenes together over the years. Rarely does a photographer get to learn all the names of the responders they come in contact with on a regular basis but more importantly, we get to recognize each other by face and demeanor. Over the many years, the Troopers and Officers have become familiar with not only my face but also my work. In fact I have been engaged in many conversations with these officers about cameras, what to buy, what brands are reputable and so for and so on. I often will hand then a business card and tell them if I can be of help to let me know. The most often response I get is an email asking if I took a photo of them at the scene and can they buy a copy. If I have one, I just email it with a thank you for allowing me such close access to the incident to take photos. It took a long time to build this relationship with many officers but it has been 100% worth it not only for scene access but some of the men and women I have met have become friends and are some of the most interesting people in my life (for many reasons).
However, I digress. While on the median strip taking photos, I noticed an officer securing the equipment of the injured officer. I took a photo with the idea of promoting it as a brother officer taking care of another. Well about 15 minutes later this same officer, who claimed it was HIS crime scene yelled at me to stop taking photos until they were done. Then I could take as many photos as I wanted. I said to myself, OK this is the day I get in an argument with a cop but instead, moved to the median strip on the opposite side of LaGrange Street. It was here that my friend and fellow photographer was standing also taking photos for his employer. This "rogue" cop, for lack of a better term, spots us again, tells us we can shoot photos when he tells us, points at me and says I told you once already to stop taking photos, and proceeds to threaten to "confiscate" our cameras. Well I think I let out a chuckle and my colleague informed the officer it doesn't work like that which must have been a threat to his idea of power and self importance. Keep in mind now that Alex and I were 30 feet away, standing on a sidewalk on the median across the street and were using long telephoto lenses in order to get photos.
I am usually the first to tell a person how it is, but in the situation, explaining the law, Boston Police policy and the First Amendment was going to do no good. This guy was off his rocker with power. I had what I needed anyway and I knew this cop would make good on his threats which meant he would have to take my cameras by force, I would probably end up detained just to be humiliated and it would not have surprised me if this scenario played out, my memory card would have been confiscated. To sum it up, not worth it at the scene when there are other many much more important things to be concentrating on. The officer claimed he was the auto investigation officer, and further research on him when I got home did, in fact, list him in that capacity. My thought was and I almost verbalized to him, well if you are supposed to be investigating the accident, why are you wasting time chasing photographers around that are in no way impeding your work? The other thing I wanted to say, but didn't was along the lines of why out of 20+ officers and troopers here are you the only one stomping your feet? Does the Glik case mean anything to you? Words better left unsaid until later.
My Tantrum; Facebook Sleeper Cell Haters
When I got home I was seething to say the least. When I left the scene I noticed Officer "Attitude" had now followed my friend completely across to the other side of the parkway and I could just imagine the conversation. So when I sat down to my computer, I made a post of my Facebook about the unfortunate encounter. I use Facebook mainly to post photos of incidents which in and of itself, sparks a lot of controversy and "civil unrest" to put it nicely. What I didn't expect but should have, was the usual posse of critics would pop us defending the actions of the cop. Now not being one to use profanity or belittle anyone on a regular basis, my vocabulary in describing the actions of this officer and the incident in general was quite direct and colorful. Plainly put, the cop was a power driven jerk, That was my story and I stuck with it. Unfortunately it turned into half a day defensing myself against a few, all the while getting much support from others. Thinking about it that night, I was wondering how a post about a personal experience could draw out so many expert opinions and turn into a battle of the witless. The like a sledgehammer it hit me. Facebook, the root of all evil where people are supposed to share their thoughts, experiences, opinions and life stories through the wonderful world of "social" media but instead dredge up a hoard of sleeper cells hell bent on tearing you apart for sharing your PERSONAL experiences. It all made sense now.
The End Result
Yesterday a small piece appeared on a local news website about the cop and Alex's encounter. It got the attention of the higher ups in the Boston Police and hopefully will be handled. Alex is definitely more soft spoken and levelheaded than me when it comes to right and wrong debates, so I am glad he was the one who took the reigns when speaking to Chief Linskey. A more diplomatic approach is the best one and I might have let my emotions speak for me which would not have been good for anyone. The main point tends to get lost in emotions.
There has been a lot of publicity over the struggle between the police and photographers over the years and the Department of Justice has adopted a policy that instructs police not to interfere with the public and press documenting their activities. Police can not stop you from taking photos in a public place, not can they detain you or confiscate your camera. Some officers may be exerting this false authority on people who may not be aware of their rights and fearing arrest may actually comply with the officers. This is sad and allows this type of harassment to continue.
There are a few ways that you can handle an encounter with the police in a situation where you have been ordered to stop taking photos. The first is search "your rights as a photographer" and you will come to a website that allows you to print out a long list of rights. You can also order these rights in the form of a wallet card. Print them out and show them to the officer. The second thing you MUST do if detained by the police is ask if you are free to go. If they say no, you are being illegally detained and the best thing you can do now is let the situation play out and deal with it legally. The National Press Photographers Association and the ACLU have people that are solely responsible for intervening in these cases. Whatever you do, do not argue or debate with the police! Do not allow legitimate charges to be added to something that you will beat in court, if the case ever reaches a courtroom.
Not all Photographers Are Saints
While I have ranted here about the actions of the police, I have to go on record by stating not all photographers are saints. I have witnessed photographers fail to comply with very reasonable requests from officers such as to move back a bit, move to the side a bit or please get out of the roadway, Ignoring these request, the photographers have either not moved or tried to get closer which certainly raised the ire of the officers and to tell the truth, mine as well. In these situations, the officers were legitimately concerned about the photographers getting hurt or hit by a car not trying to bully them.
I have also seen and heard stories from friends that work in public safety about photographers that have moved medical equipment because it was in the way of a good shot, get so close that they actually were interfering in operations or damaging evidence and other horror stories. While many photographers may read this post thinking I am condemning the police and advocating for all photographers, you are wrong. Plain and simple, there are photographers that are jerks,
Until Monday's incident, I always had a biased and somewhat jaded opinion on stories where photographers were bullied by the police. I always thought that the photographer had had to have done something to provoke the reaction of an officer. Then it happened to me and the old saying experience is the greatest teacher came true in my life. Now I have a more educated opinion and open mind when it comes to these topics. The cops need to be more tolerant and some photographers need to differentiate between abuse of authority and an officer do his duty to keep people safe.
If there is one moral of this story and lesson to be learned, please pay attention Facebook followers, unless you are there and witness things first hand, never express your opinion as fact and judge based on not having all of the facts. This will never happen because we live in a society that people love to criticize others while making themselves out to be all knowing and righteous. I found out Monday that I was wrong in my opinion about photographers in the past, only because it happened to me. So all and all, I am glad Monday happened. It taught me a lot about being open minded, that all cops are not saints and neither are all in my profession. We all have a lot of work to do.
Links to Articles on the Police vs Photographers
- National Press Photographers Association « Ye Olde Soapbox
Posts about National Press Photographers Association written by Michael B. Calyn