Tonight I heard multiple police units responding to a neighborhood I know all too well. Upon arriving on scene I could visibly see 5 squad cars and could hear many more in the distance.
When I arrived on scene I put on my kevlar vest, loaded up my Nikon D4s with a 300mm f/2.8 and started to try and photograph the scene. It was dark. I ended up taking photos at f/2.8 using 25,600 ISO and I still needed to lighten them slightly in Lightroom. I also needed to use a 1/30th to 1/50th of a second shutter speed. Not an easy scene to photograph.
Over my police radio I heard the call for a K9 unit to be brought in along with less lethal weapons and shields. A short bit of time passed and eventually an ambulance and fire truck arrived on scene.
This is all normal and no big deal. Something was clearly going on and I was there to do my job.
I got a few shots at the end of the blocked off road and then drove around to the other side to take a few more. I then went and did a circle around the neighborhood to see if there were any better vantage points and didn’t find any.
At this point I settled on going back to the second blocked off end of the block because the view was better. I parked my car and started shooting behind my car which was in a parking lane.
I heard a voice and saw a car towards the incident and believed it was an officer speaking towards the car. The LED lights on top of the police vehicle was blinding my view, though after a few “sir” requests I moved onto the sidewalk and shielded my eyes to speak with the officer.
I was told to not come any closer, now standing on the public sidewalk which was behind the informal police barricade setup by vehicles. This is perfectly understandable so I went to start taking photos again.
As I was raising my camera, mind you it’s a 300mm f/2.8 on a Nikon D4s, not something the average Joe walks around with, the Waukesha County Sheriffs Department officer told me, “no pictures” to which I replied “I’m able to take photos here.”
The officer then diverted her attention to the vehicle which was trying to leave a residence and was located closer to the house with the current incident. I proceeded to photograph the Sheriff that had told me not to take photographs.
Shortly after this I left the scene as it appeared to be winding down and traffic began to be broadcast on the channel which had been restricted.
Now let’s take a moment and think a few things over. I have been photographing spot news scenes since 2008 and know the rules.
Admittedly when first confronted by the Waukesha County Sheriff I was in the parking lane, standing against my car. That was a mistake on my part and I take full responsibility.
I also abide by unofficial rules such as not photographing and more importantly not publishing the faces of undercover officers, deceased bodies that are not covered, underage victims or witnesses, etc. Technically since the event took place in public, I can photograph and publish these things, but out of professional courtesy, I do not.
What I take issue with is a Waukesha County Sheriffs Department Officer, telling a photojournalist not to photograph a scene.
There have been so many instances of police telling citizens and journalists not to photograph or record them, the ACLU published a piece on photographers rights here.
Not to backtrack too far, but think of the Ferguson, MO issues in the summer of 2014. A court ordered police to “not to interfere with photographing or recording in public”. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) published a piece on it here.
Most recently a piece published to PetaPixel on 3/7/15 (the same day as my run in with the Sheriff), a piece begins by stating
“Los Angeles has agreed to pay a $50,000 settlement to three photographers after they were detained by LA County Sheriffs while taking pictures in public places. As part of the settlement, the city will also teach its sheriff deputies that photography is not a crime.” You can view the piece
These are just a few examples of police interfering with people taking photos.
Were I to not have known my rights, I would have stopped photographing and walked away. The average citizen does as the police say with little questioning. This in my opinion hinders the spreading of information especially with breaking news incidents. I however knew my rights and stood my ground.
I would like to call on all police departments to ensure that officers and properly educated as to what the public can photograph and what their rights are.