Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cops Hassling Photographers Topic On Paltalk


I remember when I was a young newspaper reporter in Jackson, Michigan riding one day with an undercover cop in a surveillance car.

We stopped to investigate suspicious activity near the Post Office and someone with a camera decided to snap photos. The officer, who was otherwise a really nice guy, didn't like the idea of some citizen taking his picture, especially since he was working in plain clothes. So he walked over to the photographer, took his camera, and pulled out and exposed the film.

He wasn't doing anything wrong when his photo was being taken. But he clearly acted inappropriately when he destroyed the photographer's film. It was my first, but certainly not my last experience with that kind of confrontation between police or videographers.

Some other examples:

I was stringing photos for the Associated Press in Detroit and an off duty cop got into a beef with a guy while working security outside a business on Woodward Avenue, the city's main artery. The guy stabbed the officer. I got there quickly and started snapping pictures of the injured officer and the arrested assailant. I was put in handcuffs and detained in the back seat of a police car until a supervisor came and ordered my release.

The captain of the Detroit Murray Wright High School football team was killed while trying to play peacemaker, breaking up a fight in a school hallway. Someone brought out a school yearbook so the TV videographers could shoot an image of the dead player. Police confiscated the book and told the videographers they faced arrest for taping "school property."

Police briefly stopped a Japanese TV network video crew from taping a fire in Detroit on Devil's Night, the night before Halloween where there is usually an influx of arson fires in the Motor City. They, too, were threatened with arrest for taping a news story damaging to the city's image.

In Miami, Elian Gonazalez, the Cuban boy who survived in the Atlantic Ocean by clinging to a floating tire after the raft he was escaping on sank killing, among others, his mother, had just been taken from a distant relative's home by federal agents to be reunited with his father in Cuba. Rioting broke out in Little Havana. Police started arresting and in some cases beating news photographers and videographers.

The list goes on and on. Including the arrest of our guest on Tuesday's News Talk Online on, also by the Miami Police.

News photographer Carlos Miller was photographing police investigating something in a construction zone. The police arrested him and smashed an expensive camera lens. He was acquitted of most of the charges - except resisting arrest, which he is appealing.

Miller created a blog to talk about his legal fight. But soon after he launched - which declares Photography Is Not A Crime, It's A First Amendment Right - a funny thing happened. He began getting reports from all across the nation of other photographers who were being harassed by the police. Including one in Arizona, stopped from taking pictures of skate boarders in front of a federal building without a permit (the cop thought it unlawful to be taking pictures of a federal building after the Oklahoma City bombing).

Then he learned and reported about a blogger, also in Phoenix, who is suing the police department there after officers raided his house, detained his room mate, and confiscated the computer he was using to write about allegedpolice misconduct. The blogger believes it to be a witch hunt designed to find out which officers are leaking him information.

More and more examples began pouring in. Like the man in Massachusetts who was detained by police after taking photos of a bridge and some boats from a public park.

Miller's blog has now become a central clearing spot for information on many such examples of harassment of citizens exercising their constitutional rights. And the readership has grown so large that sometimes there are hundreds of comments to a posting.

How is it possible that in 2009 police officers think that they have the right to detain citizens who are making photos or videotapes? It seems impossible, but the stories that Miller has been chronicling suggest a disturbing pattern. Where people who we've hired and have sworn to uphold the law are breaking it by violating the basic constitutional rights of the citizens they are supposed to be protecting.

To talk to Miller about this disturbing trend at 5 PM New York time Tuesday April 7 on News Talk Online on CLICK HERE.

Paltalk is the largest multimedia interactive program on the Internet with more than 4 million unique users.

News Talk Online is also syndicated by CRN Digital Talk Radio to an additional 12 million households.


Photo credit: Danny Hammontree


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Anonymous said...

I agree this is an incredibly disturbing trend. I have been asked by police to not photograph certain incidents, such as arrests on the street. I have been threatened, and no policeman has ever allow himself to be photographed. I believe some of the problem comes from the police's fear that an incident that is potentially volatile can get out of hand, necessitating the use of force, and perhaps unusual force. Documentation from outsiders is seen as a cynical intrusion on the difficult processes of their one likes to be photograph if they are teetering on the edge of self-control. I am not justifying the suppressive actions of the authorities. I do believe they must be trained to accept the rights of the public to document all things in the public domain

Gary Justis

Anonymous said...

Gary, a frightening report about intimidation and worse. I saw plenty of people's rights abused under the last administration, but this is more of a wide spread and grass roots denial of First Amendment rights. I've made note of Carlos' web site to periodically check it for new developments. Thanks for informing us about this important story.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Lansing, Michigan and have many interesting memories of the Michigan police--mostly not too great. There is trouble in River City--this is not a free press. Your post is apt.

Anonymous said...

Cops + cameras = vampires + garlic

Gordon Wagner

Anonymous said...

You may know of Bert Krages, attorney, who has written a book detailing issues on photographers' rights. He has a web page where you can download a document that can be folded into a minibooklet and kept for reference. But the book is very good. Many issues aren't black and white, and he works his way through nuances and advising that in some instances, even if you know your rights are in order, that it may be better to walk away than to deal with broken cams, lenses or bones and/or jail only to be vindicated at a later time, but your still stuck with the trauma of damage. That's not to say the rights aren't worth protecting or fighting for in many if not most instances, but he says that one element that should be in play is your own best discerning judgement.

His booklet page is here: link

I have his book, and it's a good read, I consider his advice good counsel.

Anonymous said...

Back in 2006 a magazine I freelanced for assigned me to go to Hollister ,CA after city officials canceled a long standing motorcycle rally due to the deadly violence which broke out in a Laughlin casino during a rally. I positioned my self on main street where police were pulling over bikers as fast as they could write the tickets, when a CHP officer got "testy" with me for taking his photo. I stood my ground and kept shooting but I definitely felt the intimidation factor.

Anonymous said...

Cops are people but people with guns and authority and they are very suspicious by nature and training, since 9/11 there is increased vigilance around Federal Building bridges duh? But the more personally damaging to an officer a photo or potential photo, I think the greater the over reaction. Cops are generally taught to listen, observe and judge, and are given the authority to the nth degree to do so. When they see themselves under "surveillance" I think they go a little bug house. And they can cover their butts better than the average citizen afterwards...

Anonymous said...

You've highlighted some extreme cases. There are enough asshole cops to make things complicated and dangerous for photographers. But in the interest of balance also consider that any distraction complicates the job of police officers: keeping the public safe. I'm not saying to not photograph the police at work. Especially if you witness the kinds of illegal behavior we've seen increase during the Bush years. But consider the consequences of a flash going off in the eyes of an officer making a righteous arrest of a violent subject. As a videographer I'm not always shown temperance, but it's in all our best interests to think critically in dangerous situations.

Eric Anam

Anonymous said...

"I got there quickly and started snapping pictures of the injured officer "

Did it ever occur to you to ask permission of an injured individual if they wanted to be photographed in that state?

If photographers had more consideration for the privacy of individuals, they would have less resistance to their activities.

Just because something is happening in public doesn't make it suitable for photography. Especially things that were not intended to happen in public, like accidents or violence. It is intrusive and wrong to take photogrphs of such incidents. And immoral to profit from that.

I am with you on 'boats on a river" and other such public activities, but I am with the cops on this one.

Anonymous said...

I am not nor have I ever been a policeman or involved in anything to do with law enforcement and I have no axe to grind. I am just an accountant, but don't any of you remember the video of the Rodney King incident in 1992 (?).
If one could view the entire video from start to finish you get a much different perspective than the TV media gave us with their inflammatory ten second clip of the police beating up Rodney King.

I am not defending the LAPD per se, but put yourself in a policeman's shoes for a second. There might be a lot riding on how one or two photographs were cropped or photo-shopped or otherwise modified. It is easy to fuck around with images so that they come out the way YOU want them to.

On the other hand, I live in North Carolina and about two years ago, I took two of my three children to New York City to visit their grandfather. Very early one Sunday morning I drove the two of them and my sister into Manhattan going through the Midtown Tunnel. One son was 17 at the time, he is high functioning autistic and he gives in to impulse a little too easily. My sister told him to put away the 35mm with the zoom lens as we approached the tunnel but he did not listen and was aiming the camera at something and we were pulled over.

Policeman, guess he was NYPD unless the Bridge and Tunnel authority have their own police force, I don't remember, barks at my son, who doesn't follow what is going on "don't you know you can't do that"". He asks for my license, rental agreement. North Carolina license huh? What are you doing in NY? Now I know I don't have to answer that question but we want to get going, tell him we are visiting Grandpa.
We put away the camera and went on our way, but the 4th amendment notwithstanding, that policeman could have screwed up our trip big time..

Anonymous said...

I have been fortunate in that I have not yet had any disagreements regarding photography.

People here should please note, however, that it is perfectly acceptable to take photos of anyone when out in public. On the street, there is no expectation of privacy. You can certainly feel free to voice your displeasure at having your photo taken, but it isn't illegal. It may be inconsiderate at times, but it is perfectly legit.

And yes, I can imagine that there are times when maintaining your safety (and that of your equipment) will supercede any rights you have. It sucks, but then so does having your camera damaged.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between legal and asshole and photographers violate this all the time.

As newsworthy as the towers going down was/is, it is a snuff film to me. People shouldn't look at others dying.

Going out in public, you have a reasonable expectation of what you will experience and you tacitly agree upon leaving your house that you might be photographed at the store, the mall, or wherever you go. But when you are shot, or stabbed, or raped, you would expect fellow humans to observe the simple respect for other humans to allow them some privacy. Photographers that violate this are legally free to be jerks. And most of the actions that police do involve violence or idiocy. So virtually everything they do involves one end or the other of what I described.

Maybe photographers should be obligated to post their pictures one for one showing one cop helping someone every time they beat the crap out of someone.

Just because something is legal does not make it the right thing to do.

Gary Baumgarten said...

So are you suggesting that if a photographer acting in a legal manner meets your definition of being an "asshole" it's OK for the cops to act in an unlawful manner and detain or arrest him or confiscate or break his personal property?

Makes me wonder, in a situation such as that, which party actually meets your definition.

Anonymous said...

I think the police just need to include a place in their hearts for photographers / journalists and get used to it. It is a sign of a healthy democracy when the police say "film all you want", cause they know they are doing nothing wrong. We need that. As long as the journalist stays out of the way...I don't see any reason why police business cannot be recorded. BALANCE OF POWER.

Anonymous said...

A cop's job is tough enough without having to deal with intrusions, legal or otherwise.

Maybe, just maybe, the police don't want their faces plastered all over the place. Do I really need to tell you why?

They have a tough job and most of them would take a bullet for you.

And don't get me started on the papparazzi.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between legal and asshole and photographers violate this all the time.

Photographers aren't the only ones who violate that definition. Public is called that ("public") for a reason. Tell me, do you object to being photographed on the street every day by the government? Because you are - more and more cities and towns are installing surveillance cameras. Your picture is sometimes snapped as you drive through intersections.

Sorry, but photogs get a bad rap simply because the nature of our work is intrusive. Yes, there are some instances where the police have a very valid reason for not wanting to be photographed (undercover work comes to mind). But there is no law exempting uniformed patrols from being photographed during the regular discharging of their duties. While I don't take pictures of cops, I don't see a reason why I shouldn't be allowed to. Any more than there is a reason why I should not be allowed to photograph a building simply because it has the word "Federal" on the front.

Let's keep some perspective here. Photojournalist are charged with bringing the truth to the public at large through their photos. Remember the famous pic from Viet Nam, of that poor little girl running, crying and naked, down that dirt road? Did you not think that that particular photo needed to be seen by the American public?

Anonymous said...

Photography is a tool of democracy. I'll quote Bert Krages, whom I referenced above:

For the most part, attempts to restrict photography are based on misguided fears about the supposed dangers that unrestricted photography presents to society.

Ironically, unrestricted photography by private citizens has played an integral role in protecting the freedom, security, and well-being of all Americans. Photography in the United States has an established history of contributing to improvements in civil rights, curbing abusive child labor practices, and providing important information to crime investigators. Photography has not contributed to a decline in public safety or economic vitality in the United States. When people think back on the acts of domestic terrorism that have occurred over the last twenty years, none have depended on or even involved photography. Restrictions on photography would not have prevented any of these acts. Furthermore, the increase in people carrying small digital and cell phone cameras has resulted in the prevention of crimes and the apprehension of criminals.

People shouldn't look at others dying.

This photograph, at the moment of death, probably did more to change the course of history than all the politicians involved in the Spanish Civil War, where loyalists were fighting Fascism:

link here

Capa's photography was a tool for democracy...I can imagine there would be people who would have objected at the time, or even now—that the loyalist's photo should never have been taken. Lord knows there was never time or inclination for permission to be asked or given. Capa also photographed the Normandy Invasion, capturing horrific images of the cost of war. And what has our government done since the first Gulf War to suppress the ability of the people it governs from seeing the truth and tragedy and results of its policies?

I'll say it again, because it can be extrapolated from the meta and mega to the tiniest circumstance: Photography is a tool of democracy.

Look now at this example of oppression, admittedly slightly different in intention and results, but opprobrious nonetheless:

And we want AIG to dictate our freedoms why? Because they can? And should they have the power of billions of our dollars to pay their own lawyers for such means?

Anonymous said...

The power of photography is well known to those in authority. One picture is worth a thousand words and if something is caught on film (especially if the ones being caught are police) it give less wiggle room when the story comes to light.

When describing a scene or event there is editorial license. But, if there is a picture it creates a more exact and less disputable story of the event. Of course even a photo by the way it is taken can be editorial and without the right context can be false, but in general if forces those in authority to deal with public in a more truthful way.

I find it funny that police use 9/11 as an excuse to limit access of photography for security reasons when anyone can just earth google a location and have an detailed bird's eye view complete with maps.

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