Tips For Interacting With Police

A few days ago, I saw a great video on Carlos Miller’s Photography is Not a Crime blog from photo rights activist Jerome Vorus. I decided to share this video with Cop Block’s readers because it’s a wonderful example of someone successfully asserting his legal rights while being harassed by the police.

First, here’s a bit of background on the video from Carlos Miller:

Jerome Vorus, who is becoming a full-fledged photo rights activist while still in his teens, had yet another confrontation Friday over his photography.

The 19-year-old college student was taking pictures outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington DC when an FBI police officer ordered him not to take her photo.

First he turned on the video camera on his cell phone. Then he informed her that that she didn’t have an expectation of privacy.

“I wasn’t even taking her photo in the first place,” he said in a phone interview with Photography is Not a Crime.

As he was walking away, another FBI cop pulled up in a car and ordered him to stop.

Here’s the video:

And here are the lessons we can learn from Vorus’s interaction with this inept police officer:

1. Film everything:

The first thing Vorus did after he was told that he couldn’t take pictures was to start filming with his cell phone. By filming, you create a record of the event. If the police break the law or engage in any questionable behaviors, you will have evidence.

When it comes to filming, it helps to understand the law. For the most part it is legal to take pictures of or film anyone in a public place (including police officers) because people do not have an expectation of privacy in public. If you’re interested in learning about your legal rights as a photographer/videographer, I recommend checking out this brief overview.

Even though the police Vorus interacted with appeared to be clueless about the law, they never tried to steal his camera or his phone. Not everyone is this lucky. Some cops will illegally seize video cameras especially if they have been filmed doing something illegal. If you think it’s likely that a police officer will steal your camera, there are a few things you can do. One is to utilize the buddy system. Bring along a friend or friends and have them film the encounter from a different angle. The more cameras, the more difficult it becomes to destroy all the video evidence. You can also try using a service like Qik that automatically publishes your video to the internet. This way, even if a cop seizes your camera, he or she still won’t be able to destroy the video evidence.

2. Make the officer justify his/her actions:

When the second officer tried to get Vorus to show him his pictures, the first thing Vorus did was ask “Am I being detained?” Vorus asked this question because a police officer cannot simply stop a person without reason. An officer needs a legitimate reason to detain someone. If an officer tries to talk to you, but is not detaining you, then you can simply leave. If an officer is detaining you, he or she must be able to justify the detainment to you.

At first, the officer simply ignored Vorus’s question and continued to press him for information, but Vorus was persistent and the officer eventually admitted that he was detaining him. Vorus used this opportunity to force the officer to justify his actions by asking “What is the basis of detainment today?” When the officer told him that he was being detained for taking pictures of a “sensitive area” (which, as we’ve already established, is not a crime), Vorus rephrased his question. He asked the officer what his probable cause for the stop was and whether or not the officer believed that he had committed a crime.

If an officer gives you a vague, catch-all reason for stopping you, ask how it applies to you specifically. For instance, the officer in the above video made the following statement: “Look, I mean, you understand these times. We got all these–all kinds of terrorist activities and things like that.” Before the officer could finish rambling, Vorus interjected a question–“Do you suspect me of terrorism?” This forced the officer to admit that he didn’t suspect Vorus of terrorism, making it quite clear that his spiel had nothing to do with anything and was not a valid reason for detaining Vorus.

If an officer refuses to justify his actions but continues to insist that he is detaining you, that he can search you, etc., you can ask to speak to a supervisor like Vorus did in the video. This is a toss-up, however. If a supervisor is called out, there’s always a chance that the supervisor is just as (if not more) unprofessional, ignorant, and/or abusive as the original officer.

It’s not really clear why this officer suddenly lost interest in Vorus toward the end of the video, but I suspect realizing he could not justify detaining him played a big role.

3. Exercise your right to remain silent:

When police officers talk to people, they will often grill them for information that they are not legally required to provide. Often, police will phrase these “requests” as commands or use other methods to trick you into providing them with info. Police will even fabricate laws that require you to provide them with information (which is basically threatening you with a false arrest).

When an officer tries to get this sort of information from you, exercise your right to remain silent. When you start volunteering information to the police, you put them in control of the situation. Furthermore, anything you say can be used against you by the officer. Even seemingly innocuous pieces of information can be twisted into the probable cause necessary to detain you, search you, arrest you, etc.

In the above video, the male officer tried to get Vorus to provide him with information that he was not required to give. For instance, he demanded that Vorus show him his ID. Vorus generally didn’t even acknowledge these requests because he was too busy asking the officer to justify the stop. This is a good strategy because it keeps the police officer on the defensive, however, it can help to remind the officer that you aren’t legally required to provide the information he or she wants. For instance, at one point in the video, the officer demanded that Vorus show his ID and he responded by saying that he didn’t even need to carry an ID because he was not operating a motor vehicle.

For more tips on how to interact with police, check out these posts:



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