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How to Avoid Dealing With the Police When Shooting in Public

Are you a photographer in the US? Congratulations. In the eyes of some of your more dimwitted fellow citizens, you are now potentially a member of al Qaida.

Thanks to ridiculous government posters like the one above, people are now conditioned to be suspicious of photographers. And photographers using flashes on location are all the more noticeable to people who are predisposed to phone in anything out of the ordinary, just in case.

Don't think so? True story: I actually had an interaction with the police for photographing … a maple tree.

If You See Something, Say Something

That's the slogan. But it is, of course, overly broad and simplistic. Which means that your average mouth breather can interpret it however he or she wants. And the einstein who reported me as a "suspicious person" called me in while I was making this benign photo as part of a multimedia time-lapse on autumn:

I was called in as, and I quote, "Somebody suspicious and lots of flashes of light going off."

At least that is how the cop described it when she pulled up to me, bubble gum lights blazing, to ask me what I was doing. And anyone who knows me knows that my immediate reaction was to resort to humor laced with sarcasm.

"Well, I am either a photographer taking an innocuous photo of a maple tree," I said, "or I'm al Qaida, casing our critical deciduous infrastructure."

This did not go over well.

She looked at me sternly and told me not to even joke about that sort of thing. (Really? Don't joke about 'critical deciduous infrastructure?, I thought.) Long story short, she spent 5 minutes sorting me out. The gist was, as a previously described suspicious person, I had to convince her I was, in fact, not. It was all I could do not to go completely smart-ass on her.

I know my rights. I carry The Card. But I also know that on the street, the police have the ability to wreck a shoot. This one was not time-sensitive, but many are. And even worse, they can write you up, take you in -- and even put you on any of a number of secret lists in our new DHS Secret Police State.

I know this because a very good friend of mine asserted his rights to -- get this -- a rent-a-cop private security consultant while shooting a twilight shot of a hotel during a commercial job. He made the mistake of being near train tracks where, according to the private security guy, the Constitution was no longer in effect.

My friend won the argument, but lost the war. The security guard/terrorist detection specialist turned out to be a vindictive jerk. The photog is now on an "increased scrutiny list" that adds a long and special wait at TSA any time he flies.

That sucks. And it's not right -- or even legal. But that is the environment we are now in. Like it or not, we have to deal with ignorant bystanders and/or ultimately, uniformed police officers potentially screwing up our shoots. Or worse.

So any time I know I am going to shoot in a public space, this is how I hack the system.

Prime Directive: Avoid Interacting with the Police While Shooting

If the police get called to check me out during a shoot, best case, we will be interrupted. Unfortunately, this could be during the five minutes of good mix light and ruin a shoot. Worst case, tempers can flare because I know my rights and will assert them, even to a "It's Different Since 9/11" kinda cop. So I just avoid the issue all together.

Fair warning, some of you will not like my solution because you think I am caving. I'm not. I am simply short circuiting the likelihood of interacting with the cops while I am trying to shoot. If you are against my solution on principle, don't use it. I don't care.

Step One: Check In

This will piss some of you off. I don't care. Here's what I do. And bear in mind, I live in a suburban area where we do not have a permitting process and where police are not used to dealing with location photography that might involve stands, lights, etc.

Generally, the police aren't gonna just happen upon you. What happens is somebody calls you in. They call 911 (seriously -- they did that for the tree terrorist) and the call is routed to the duty officer at the appropriate precinct. But by the time I am shooting, I have already been in contact with that person.

Before I shoot (a couple hours, usually) I call into the duty officer of the local precinct. I tell them my name, that I am a photographer, and where/when I will be shooting. I explain that, just in case some overenthusiastic passerby calls me in as a suspicious person, I just want to save them a call. I offer them my cell number, and ask if they want my sosh or driver's license number. I have never been taken up on this, but I would happily give it.

Why? Because al Qaida never does this.

Joking aside, this positions me as the rational person in the equation should some idiot phone me in. And if they do call me in, there almost certainly will not be a visit to the scene. ("We already know about him, sir.")

I also get the duty officer's name, in the tiny chance a cop just happens upon me and decides to stop. That way I can say that I checked in with [Officer Whoever] on the desk, hoping to keep them from wasting a call. That's never happened, but I have a known name to drop just in case.

Step Two: These Are Not The Droids You're Looking For

Next line of defense is to keep the call to the cops from happening in the first place. This is especially important when I am going to be shooting flash in the woods in the evening or night, which I do a lot.

I print up a sheet and stick it in everyone's door who is within eyeshot of the shoot at night. Because believe-you-me, it you are popping flashes in the woods at 2am, some idiot will absolutely call your butt in. To them, it's gotta look pretty much like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The flyer basically says not to be alarmed if you see flashes in the woods overnight on such-and-such a date. It's not aliens. (Humor is important here.) It's not al Qaida (I really say that). It's just photos for [whatever generic thing I want to put down.]

Any questions? Call my cell at this number on the scene. And hey, while you're at it, check out my work at [URL]! Now I am not a terrorist and I am at least somewhat legitimate -- self promoting, actually.

Knock Wood

The tree interaction between cop and smart-ass was in 2006. It was then that I realized I needed to short-circuit any chance of me dealing with cops in a public shooting situation. Because I know me and I know my rights and I know that I am very likely to smart-ass myself right into a visit to the police station. Or a permanent slot in the cavity search line at the airport.

So far, with lots of night-flashing woods shots under my belt since, it has worked like a charm. One day it won't. And if you are reading this and you are in the TSA, be gentle. And maybe buy me dinner first.


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