stop and identify on Flickr.
Mamiya C330 S and Sekor 55mm f/4.5
Tim Castlen and I had a mildly dramatic experience with the Cumberland, Maryland police about a month ago while taking some long exposures at night. Luckily the incident was more of an aggravation than anything else (we weren’t arrested or physically pushed around) but it does follow along the lines of the kind of senseless and overzealous response to “strange” behavior that I’ve read about from other photographers in our “post 9/11” world. I wrote a very long(winded) letter reporting the incident (see below) but the gist of the situation was that we were compelled to present our IDs for acting suspiciously (taking a photo of a barbershop about a block from where the photo above was taken).
My biggest problem with the police response was that we were compelled to show our IDs for a legal activity that was taking place on a public sidewalk. Maryland doesn’t have a “stop and identify” law, that I am aware of, though “reasonable suspicion” along with other circumstances can allow police here to demand identification (I’m no legal expert, but that’s what I’ve understood to be true). My second biggest problem was that they weren’t concerned about the possibility that we might be barber supply thieves, barber shop vandals or shaving cream fetishists, but instead they focused on the possibility that our picture taking had some vague relationship to terrorism. During the whole situation they kept talking about 9/11 stuff.
I received a response to my letter from the chief of police who referred me to the officers’ commander, who I eventually spoke with on the phone. The conversation wasn’t very productive; kind of like talking to a company press secretary. He was nice enough but I couldn’t get across the idea that there is a difference between unusual and suspicious activity (or at least that there should be). He said it’s common practice for the Cumberland Police to compel IDs from people at any time. He said they do this so that they can collect potential future witnesses to crimes that might take place in the area (?!). Of course we weren’t forced to present IDs under that premise but for our movie-terrorist-like behavior. He emphasized that there isn’t a great deal of crime in his town, but that this was how they did things. He did say that he would investigate the incident and speak with the officers involved and that if further training was necessary, they would follow up with the officers. He did agree that the focus on terrorism seemed misguided and that more run-of-the-mill crime is what he’d be concerned with.
I hope that, at the very least, officers in Cumberland won’t immediately draw the conclusion that photography equals terrorist activity, but if you find yourself inspired to get off the Interstate in Cumberland, just be aware that this is the reception you could receive. Other than one other daytime incident in Baltimore, this is the only bad experience I’ve had with the police while taking pictures. I’ve had cops try to scare me out of neighborhoods (“do you know where you are?”) in Baltimore, but never have I been forced to present my ID under threat of arrest.
For all this trouble, the picture I took of the barber shop did not come out.
Here’s the letter I wrote…
Dear Mr. Mayor, members of the Cumberland City Council, Cumberland Chamber of Commerce and Allegany County Board of Commissioners,
I want to report to you an incident that occurred on Friday evening, March 29, 2013 involving officers of the Cumberland Police Department, myself and my friend, Tim Castlen. First, let me give you some background. My friend and I are photographers and have often talked about how interesting Cumberland is as a destination to explore and photograph. Every time I have visited Cumberland in the past it has always been en route to somewhere else, with no time but for a quick stop. So we decided to make a special overnight trip to Cumberland to take pictures. We stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown, ate at a nice Mexican restaurant on Baltimore Street and otherwise enjoyed ourselves, taking pictures along the way.
Once it became dark we went out to do some night photography along the lines of what you can see on this page. I’ve been taking night photos for years in cities and towns throughout the United States and abroad. I typically take pictures with a large medium format film camera that requires the steadiness of a tripod for long exposures of several seconds to several minutes, depending on the light. I usually take pictures with other photographers. Naturally, people can sometimes be curious as to what we might be doing, and after explaining, most people understand or at least realize that we’re up to no harm. On a few occasions a citizen or an overzealous security guard has given me and my friends a difficult time, but these occasions are luckily relatively rare. In such cases, I often advise these individuals to call the police if they are concerned about my activity as I’m well aware of my rights and know that most police are also aware of those rights. In fact, there have been dozens of occasions when police officers have asked, typically in a friendly manner, what we might be up to and, after explaining in a sentence or two, they might say something about being careful and then move on. For years, this has been my experience.
Unfortunately an aberration to this experience occurred on Friday night, when officers from the Cumberland Police claimed I was “suspicious” and that I would be arrested if I did not produce some identification for them to “run” through their system. The incident started off while I was taking a photograph of a barber shop on Baltimore Street, just east of the railroad tracks. My camera is attracted to classic signs, buildings, cars, etc, and Cumberland is rich with such material. While setting up the shot an Officer Vanskiver pulled up in her patrol car and asked “who are you with” and I explained that I was a tourist (not with anybody) just taking pictures for fun. I usually carry around business cards, but unfortunately I ran out that day, so I didn’t have one to produce for her. I apologized for that, but reiterated that I was taking photographs for fun and that I wished to continue doing so. She was clearly agitated at this point. She demanded my name and told me to produce some ID. She stated that my behavior was suspicious but when I asked her what crime I was suspected to have committed, she couldn’t say. She did say something about the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington DC and New York. What this had to do with me taking pictures 12 years later in Cumberland, Maryland is beyond me. I explained that I knew my rights and that I didn’t have to say anything or produce an ID. There was no “reasonable suspicion” and I wasn’t being placed under arrest, so I finished taking my picture and then left the scene.
My friend and I were finishing up for the night at this point anyway, when this run-in occurred. Our hotel was just a couple blocks away, and we started walking back to the car after our discussion with the officer. As we were about to put our gear in the car two police cars and a police sport utility vehicle pulled up and boxed us in. At this point we mostly spoke with Officer D.F. Jenkins who demanded to see our IDs. During this conversation he stated that he would arrest us if we did not produce identification. I again asked what we were suspected of and in a nonplussed manner he, like the other officer, started to talk about the September 11, 2001 attacks, as if they had some connection with what we were doing. He could never cite a law or ordinance or anything tangible that we were supposed to have violated. Both officers seemed to be concerned with “movie-plot threats.” I produced a copy of “The Photographer’s Right,” (it’s not a legal document, but it explains basic civil rights to those who are not aware) and explained how we were doing nothing illegal and asked again what illegal activity we were suspected of, but there was no response from Officer Jenkins except to talk amorphously about the threat of terrorism and the September 11, 2001 attacks. It would seem to me that theft, vandalism, littering (e.g. the littering in the tunnel below Baltimore Street that goes under the railroad tracks) or something else along those lines would be the bigger concern for the police in Cumberland, but that kind of activity was never mentioned. As far as I know, Maryland doesn’t have any “stop and identify” statutes but we eventually gave in and showed the officer our IDs and they “ran it” and then we all went on our way. At that point in the night, my friend and I were both too tired to make a point. We were on vacation after all.
The officers had a hard time understanding our reluctance to show ID. They clearly thought that if we had nothing to hide, there should be no hesitation to simply produce our papers on command, as might be done in Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. From my perspective, there was no basis for a “reasonable suspicion” that we were doing anything wrong, especially since they couldn’t produce any evidence of such activity when asked.
I have kept up with incidents of law enforcement overstepping their bounds with photographers over the years, but as I stated earlier, this is the only time in all my years of taking pictures at night, that I have had a problem like this. I’ve photographed on public sidewalks in front of federal buildings, rail stations, etc. in Washington, D.C., New York City and my home city of Baltimore with no such problems. Since I am not violating any laws when taking my pictures, officers in these cities have not demanded my ID, detained me or threatened me with arrest. I’ve either just had good luck or most officers truly understand common sense and the law and don’t waste their time on activity that is clearly not criminal. I tend to think that my experiences have less to do with luck and more to do with the competence and professionalism of the average police officer.
It boggles my mind why three police vehicles had to box us in and that we were threatened with arrest unless we produced our IDs. While my friend and I had a very enjoyable time in Cumberland up to that point, we were glad not to be spending a second night in your city. We left early the next morning. I’d love to go back to Cumberland again, at some point, but this incident makes it a much less attractive destination. If I do return, I’d like some assurance that this occurrence was an anomaly and won’t happen again and that the officers will be educated about the rights of individuals in public spaces who are engaged in perfectly legal activities.
You have a great city in a beautiful location. I love the architecture. We met some very friendly people as well. It’s a shame to have your police officers scare people away. As an aside, I’ll point out that if the actual September 11, 2001 criminal attackers had somehow found themselves in Cumberland taking pictures, running their IDs would not have made a difference as they all had clean records. This kind of aggressive policing is not only unfriendly it’s also ineffective. I don’t understand why any police officer should be citing the September 11, 2001 attacks as reason for stopping someone on the street. Just because a lot of people say it, doesn’t mean it makes sense. I expect that kind of thing from under trained and underpaid security guards, not a police officer.
Thank you for listening to my concerns.