Miami artist harassed by cops
Post #1198 • June 20, 2008, 10:16 AM • 64 Comments
Momoko Sudo is an artist I know from Miami. Since coming from her native Japan several years ago, Momoko has had to endure a lot of nonsense that makes one want to apologize on behalf of one's country. Last week, while out for a walk in Coral Gables, she decided to take a photograph of a police motorcycle. An officer responded to this by ordering her to hand over her camera and change its display from Japanese to English, at which point he deleted the entire memory card, took it out of the camera, and threw it on the ground. All the while he subjected her to verbal intimidation, and when she asked a fellow officer to identify him, he refused to do so as anything except "Rodriguez." (If you know anything about Miami, you'll appreciate that "Rodriguez" is not a sufficiently unusual name to identify a particular person out of a group. Which was, of course, the point.) She has put up a page describing the ordeal on her website.
How many things are wrong with this? I am not, repeat not, a lawyer, but let's start with the big one: what the officer did was illegal. While specific laws vary from state to state, there are typically only two restrictions on photographing out of doors. First, an officer can ask you to relocate out of the immediate vicinity of a crime scene to a nearby location, and you must do so. Second, if you are photographing on someone else's property and they ask you to leave the premises, you must do so.
Otherwise you can take pictures of anything you want that happens in public. This means that you may photograph police at work or at rest. You may photograph police vehicles, police weapons, police animals, and police equipment. You may even photograph officers who fail to understand the law and have proclivities to threaten diminuitive Japanese women. Or if you like, their motorcycles. They in turn have no claim whatsoever on your camera or its contents.
Secondly, harassment of photographers by police is becoming increasingly common and it is endangering the public. Security guru Bruce Schneier wrote about this two weeks ago on his website, in an essay entitled The War on Photography. He calls the link between photography and suspicious activity a "movie-plot threat," and notes:
The problem with movie-plot security is it only works if we guess the plot correctly. If we spend a zillion dollars defending Wimbledon and terrorists blow up a different sporting event, that's money wasted. If we post guards all over the Underground and terrorists bomb a crowded shopping area, that's also a waste. If we teach everyone to be alert for photographers, and terrorists don't take photographs, we've wasted money and effort, and taught people to fear something they shouldn't.
Momoko has already availed herself of the city's complaint process, but I'm about to take the liberty of contacting the Coral Gables Chief of Police, Michael Hammerschmidt, at email@example.com, to comment on this post and answer the following questions:
1. Is it Coral Gables Police Department policy to harass photographers and destroy the contents of their cameras when they photograph police equipment, and if not, how do you explain the action of the officers in this incident?
2. What advice do you have for a photographer who finds himself or herself subjected to threatening treatment by Coral Gables police offers who refuse to identify themselves or each other?
I recently criticized the public funding of art, but it's on issues like this that I'm truly ready to go to the mat as a libertarian. However minor this incident is in comparison to the horrifying erosions of civil liberties under the Bush regime, this lands too close to home for me to countenance. Please act accordingly and appropriately if you feel the same.