Some of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken which, I am sure, the LASD would consider to be without aesthetic value. (More where those came from on Flickr.)
I’m always taking photos of random things. I think it’s fun. And photos are valuable for illustrating blog posts, among other things.
But a lot of law enforcement agencies consider photography to be a “suspicious activity.” You can be seriously harassed for street photography.
Happily, the ACLU is stepping in to do something about it. The ACLU is now suing to challenge a policy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that considers as “terrorism-related” the activity of taking “pictures or video footage with no apparent esthetic value, i.e., camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.”
If I had a buck for every photo I’ve taken of “security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.,” then I would have a huge wad of cash. Enough to buy a full-frame digital SLR and maybe even get a sweet L-series 400mm telephoto lens.
And I’d run out and use it to take pictures of traffic lights, building entrances, and other stuff like that. And then I’d probably have to call the ACLU for help, because I could get into trouble like their latest plaintiffs Shane Quentin and Shawn Nee.
Quentin was targeted when he was taking photographs of refineries at night in south Los Angeles at night. (I’ve been meaning to do this myself the next time have some extra time down there. The refineries at night are stunning – fortresses of light, flame, fog, and exhaust. Highly photogenic in my book.) Well for his efforts, Quentin was frisked and placed in the back of squad car. He was kept there for about 45 minutes before he was let go.
It could have been me.
Nee’s misadventures are even harder to fathom. LASD deputies detained and searched plaintiff Shawn Nee when he was taking pictures turnstiles at an L.A. Metro station. This gives you an idea of where they were at: They asked Nee if he was planning to sell the photos to al-Qaeda.
Really. I’m not making that up. I mean, not only are they imply that he was in league with al-Qaeda, but that he was doing it for the money.
Then the LASD officers threatened to stick Nee on an FBI “hit list.” Okay, that’s absurd. Everyone who watches USA network knows that the CIA is in charge of assassinating terrorists on U.S. soil. But I digress.
On a separate occasion, sheriff’s deputies ordered Nee to refrain from taking photos along the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, outside the W Hotel. I mean, holy heck. If you aren’t safe taking pictures there – smack-dab in the middle of freaking Hollywood – where are you?
You can tell I’m upset. I’m using far too much italics.
The ACLU’s complaint [pdf], unlike this blog post, is a model of legal writing. For one, it’s written with a literary flair, yet it refrains from crossing the line into floweriness. Like this:
Photography is not a crime; it is a means of artistic expression. In public spaces, on public streets and from public sidewalks, no law bars Los Angeles residents and visitors from photographing the world around them, from documenting their own lives or using their lenses to find the sublime in the commonplace.
Nicely said. The complaint also is filled with footnoted references to essays, art reviews, and books. It’s very well-researched. A model pleading. Kudos to the ACLU. What’s more, this is a lawsuit that is badly needed to push back against an unhealthy trend. As the complaint says:
Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented “suspicious activity reporting” programs, under which officers are trained to report certain categories of behavior believed to be potential indicators of terrorism. Many departments include photography as one such ‘suspicious activity’ that should be reported.
Mickey H. Osterreicher said in a letter to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca that the aim is to get “at least” the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to revise departmental policy and instruct deputies correspondingly.
“Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression or to impede the ability to gather news,” Osterreicher said.