While digital photography has become the indispensable technology in combating police brutality, photographers are also finding themselves in altercations with the police. Police are forcing photographers to stop taking photos, sometimes making them leave the area or even confiscating their equipment. The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were arrested after a SWAT Team entered a Mcdonald’s where the two reporters were working while covering the riots in Ferguson. Reilly snapped a photo of the Team prompting one of the officers to ask him for his identification. He instead requested the officer’s name, whereupon the officer shoved his things into a bag and put him in a pressure hold. According to Reilly, “They essentially acted as a military force . . . . The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.”1
The right to take photographs of the police is becoming more important as evidence in cases of police brutality or to prove the innocence of police officers.
Know Your Rights
Despite what some police officers or other officials may think, taking photos of the police is not illegal. In fact, anyone can snap a photo as long as the subject is plainly visible from a public space, although, certain designated Military and Energy installations are off-limits to photography because of national security concerns. Public spaces include federal buildings, transportation facilities, as well as people such as police or other government officials. As noted by the ACLU, being able to photograph incidents like these is not only a constitutional right but a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.
If you can see it and you are on public property, then you can take a photo of it.
More importantly, police officers are also not allowed to confiscate your camera or even demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. And they cannot delete your photographs for any reason. If they do, they may face felony charges. For example, in a Nebraska case, Octavius Johnson questioned police as to why his family’s cars were being towed. Johnson found himself the victim of excessive force by the police and the subject of a warrantless search and seizure. Two of Johnson’s brothers filmed the incident but the police confiscated their cameras. Luckily, a man across the street filmed the entire incident leading to the arrest of the police officer (pictured below) for theft, misdemeanor obstruction, and tampering with evidence.
It’s very important to know your rights so you have the proper information to handle the situation appropriately. But very often, your understanding and that of the police as to the law will differ or the police may find other associated reasons to bring you in. For example, the reporters arrested at McDonald’s discussed earlier were not arrested for taking photos but for failing to provide identification.
In another example, the Baltimore Sun dispatched photographer Chris Assaf to a murder scene. While taking photos, a police officer shoved him away from the crime scene tape, where he had every right to be, while allowing the other people watching to remain. The officer began bullying Assaf, which another Sun photographer, Lloyd Fox, managed to photograph. After the incident, the Baltimore Sun stated, “there seems to be a misconception among some police officers and others in authority that they can stop not only the press but anyone taking pictures or recording police activity at a crime scene.”
Given the increasing frequency of police harassing photographers, don’t be surprised if it happens to you. The best course of action in any situation is to be polite as possible, despite how hard that may be but Know your rights too.
As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art, law, and business. He is currently serving as the Chief Product Officer at Artrepreneur. You can find his photography at artrepreneur.com or through Fremin Gallery in NYC.