Long Beach Police Chief: we detain photographers, and I don't have any guidelines for that policy, photography is classed with attempts to acquire weaponized smallpox

The Police Chief of Long Beach has confirmed that his department's policy is to detain photographers who do nothing more than take pictures in public places, and that he neither has, nor plans to implement, any guidelines for these detentions. He classes photography with other "suspicious activity" such as "attempts to acquire illegal or illicit biological agent (anthrax, ricin, Eboli, smallpox, etc.)" and "In possession, or utilizes, explosives (for illegal purposes)."
"If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery," says McDonnell, "it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual." McDonnell went on to say that whether said contact becomes detainment depends on the circumstances the officer encounters.

McDonnell says that while there is no police training specific to determining whether a photographer's subject has "apparent esthetic value," officers make such judgments "based on their overall training and experience" and will generally approach photographers not engaging in "regular tourist behavior."

This policy apparently falls under the rubric of compiling Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) as outlined in the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Order No. 11, a March 2008 statement of the LAPD's "policy … to make every effort to accurately and appropriately gather, record and analyze information, of a criminal or non-criminal nature, that could indicate activity or intentions related to either foreign or domestic terrorism."

Police Chief Confirms Detaining Photographers Within Departmental Policy

(Image: Perfection, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from omaromar's photostream)


  1. Yeah…a policy without guidelines… That’s gonna work out real well.  At this point, the ‘policy’ relies on cops to be smart about what they do, while essentially being told that everyone is suspicious…  You know that saying about a hammer and a nail…

  2. They need to buy a copy of Mitch Epstein’s American Power photobook http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeKiZUgzrr8

  3. On one hand zero tolerance policies are ridiculous, you can’t treat everyone the same, and each situation should be considered individually. On the other hand, you had better have a policy and not just treat every situation individually and leave decisions up to actual people with actual discretion because obviously those people are going to make bad calls.

  4. I’m not a normal tourist. I took pictures of flatbed trucks carrying uranium gas, nuclear power plants, and coal-fired power plants on my latest road trip.  I must be a terrorist. I also wore a video coat into the airport, which made my entire family terrorists.

    1. I’d just like to go on record as saying I do not know this man nor do I condone his action as wholly within the law as they might currently be (whew, that should do the trick).

  5. I shoot line, texture and form where I find it; industrial sites are a thing of beauty to me.

    Who knew I’m a terrorist-sympathizer. Momma will be SO proud.

  6. I was stopped by police once when geocaching near a water reservoir. (The surrounding area was a public park, and as long as I stayed outside the fence around the water, I was obeying the law.) There was a quick conversation — I wouldn’t even say I was detained, and the officer didn’t ask me who I was or anything personal like that. He wished me a nice day and gave me an update on the weather report to let me know when the rain was coming. I don’t see how I or anyone else could be offended by that experience, and I would much rather a cop politely ask me what I was doing than either ignore behavior they didn’t understand or go the other extreme and find an excuse to arrest me. However, as BoingBoing stories remind me, not all cops are going politely chat and wish you a nice day.

    If I go with what the text in the quoted blurb days, though,

    If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery,” says McDonnell, “it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual.” McDonnell went on to say that whether said contact becomes detainment depends on the circumstances the officer encounters.

    That seems pretty reasonable as far as these things go. Make contact, but don’t detain unless circumstances call for it. I’m not thrilled with the amount it leaves up to police judgement, but it doesn’t strike me as any worse than things which are already up to police judgement (whether to issue tickets or not, whether to pursue misdemeanors or not, whether to arrest or not).
    Note: I haven’t read the article yet, I’m just going off the quote in boingboing.

    1. make no mistake about it, if they try to talk to you, you are required to participate (you must follow “any lawful request” of a police officer). which means that in that moment you are literally under arrest (unable to do as you please, under order of law). this is not a matter of “oh, hi. how’re you doing”, this is an official police action against your person, privacy, and freedom.

  7. So, after a read through the article and a quick look at the statutes and caselaw in my state, it looks as thought the test for reasonable suspicion is subjective — did the officer honestly beleive there was a strong likelihood of criminal activity, even if that belief was based on bad assumptions — rather than objective — did he correctly asses the facts of the situation and act in the most appropriate way possible. 

    If that’s the case then we are sunk because, thanks to the ongoing fear-mongering in media and politics, at this moment in time most people do really think that photography is suspicious and threatening activity. 

    I hope I’m getting it wrong, but it looks to me as though a common perception that a certain behavior is associated with criminal activity is all police need to be concerned with, even if it is easily proven that the correlation does not exist.

  8. 10 years ago this month (August 14th as I write this) taking pictures of just about anything wouldn’t raise any suspicion.

    Today, everyone is a “suspect”.

    Bin Laden laughs in his watery grave. His terror-spawned act of 9/11/01 continues to terrify America. Aided and abetted by those who would use that terror to aid their own political ends.

  9. And just how does the cop tell whether a person is taking a photo or tapping out a text on their phone?  Or is it only those who use good cameras who are suspicious?

    When tripods are outlawed…

  10. There is a whole buncha of petro-chemical industry in Long Beach. South Houston-like whole lots. This and the fresh water reservoirs is where the security guards grabbing our family jewels at the airport should actually be stationed. One even half-way properly positioned truck bomb could kill thousands.

    The Long Beach police have not been trained right. They really not sure what they are supposed to be protecting. There’s ways to be respectful to people while doing their job, too

  11. I’m pretty sure this is a more about intimidating the general population and less about fighting terrorism…

    The US government has really latched on to the notion of confiscating rights under the guise of safety.

  12. I want a gimbal-mounted cam on my phone. At the moment, it’s obvious when you’re taking a photo, because lenses are fixed wrt camera body and wrt preview screen. You have to hold the camera out straight, the back of it facing directly at the subject, the front of it facing you, if you want to frame the shot right. It’s a VERY different pose from texting.

    1. Yeah, but in this country should we really be so worried about taking pictures that we need ways to do it while looking like we’re texting? 

  13. My wife and I have crawled around some Bum infested industrial zones to take some cool pictures in the LA and Long Beach harbor area. Neither of us is guilty of doing much more than paying huge aounts of taxes and getting some cool pictures. …And maybe some trespassing? Nah. Either way, not going to do that so much, in this NEW America.

  14. So, it’s left to the discretion of the officer, which is good as long as you trust the judgement of the officers, but is bad, of course, when their judgement fails. So what would you recommend for guidelines on whether someone taking photos of, say, a chemical plant are suspicious or not?

    1. “So what would you recommend for guidelines on whether someone taking
      photos of, say, a chemical plant are suspicious or not?”

      I suggest that appropriate guidelines are actually very simple – “they’re not”.

    2. cops are just people in different uniforms, or to put it another way, at least 90% of them are idiots.

  15. What’s really odd is if your taking pics with a cell phone no one notices. Get a tripod out and a nice lens and security is all over it. Makes no logical sense at all. Would terrorist be using a decent rig or furtively taking pics with a cell phone?

  16. I’m pretty sure you don’t have to reply to the officer beyond maybe identifying yourself if asked. And in fact I believe (as any jailhouse lawyer might), staying as silent as possible will make the resulting civil rights case easier to win.

    I also wonder how many tax dollars the chief is handing out in settlements with these kinds of non-policies.

    1. It varies by state.  In WI, “a law enforcement officer may stop a person in a public place
      for a reasonable period of time when the officer reasonably suspects
      that such person is committing, is about to commit or has committed a
      crime, and may demand the name and address of the person and an
      explanation of the person’s conduct.”

      The law does not explicitly state that I have to answer, but the caselaw seems to indicate that an arrest on charges of obstruction or interference against those who decline to answer questions about their behavior is likely.  Those charges may or may not be dropped later, but you still get a trip to jail.

      “The potential availability of an innocent explanation does not prohibit an investigative stop. If any reasonable inference of wrongful conduct can be objectively discerned, notwithstanding the existence of other innocent inferences that could be drawn, the officers have the right to temporarily detain the individual for the purpose of inquiry. State v. Limon, 2008 WI App 77, 312 Wis. 2d 174, 751 N.W.2d 877, 07-1578.”

      1. Your quoting of Wisconsin statute is all well and good, but the fact remains that any cop anywhere in the US can arrest and detain someone for 24 hours without any reason whatsoever.  This happens more than people would believe. I once spent a night in jail because I reminded a cop of his wife’s brother and said cop was in the doghouse because she caught him cheating.  Revenge by proxy.

        1. It depends how you’re thinking about it.  The law does not allow for police to detain and arrest you for no reason whatsoever, there is a clearly defined burden of proof.   

          If you mean that a corrupt, incompetent, or simply misinformed LEO can toss you in jail on a whim (assuming he gets it past his supervisors) and let you sit there for the maximum allowable time before you have to be granted a hearing in front of a judge or magistrate in that jurisdiction, then yeah, that was my point.

      2. I think it’s likely that any reply that does not include immediately stopping taking pictures is going to involve a trip to jail. My sense of the “resulting civil rights case” is that jail would be a foregone conclusion.

  17. I believe this is all a misunderstanding. What the Chief meant to say was “Keep your ugly fucking gold bricking in ass out of my beach community” right? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yggQ3HbO0Wg

  18. Apropos or absolutely nothing of course…

    A) Some people are stupid.

    B) Sometimes stupid people are  attracted to law enforcement.

    It’s a sad state of affairs, but I’m not sure there is any particularly deep meaning. I guess the deep meaning lies in the populous that puts up with it…

    1. a) most people are stupid

      b) more stupid people than the average are attracted to positions of power, including law enforcement.

      c) do the math

      1. You know, if you think about it, there’s something funny about pointing out that most people are stupid and then asking them to do math.

  19. I recently traveled from Boise, ID to Ponca City, Oklahoma because I heard there were pristine examples of hand-painted Coca-Cola signage from the 30’s in the downtown area.  It turned out to be true and they are truly fantastic.  What I was unaware of was the presence of the CONOCO refinery, which employs almost the entire population of Ponca City.  I couldn’t begin to grasp the immensity of this place, so I took some photos of it.  It occurred to me that my curiosity and amazement could be misconstrued if someone noticed it, but nobody did.  I would like to take this opportunity to quote irksome, who said “I shoot line, texture and form where I find it; industrial sites are a thing of beauty to me.”  Had authorities taken my camera, they would have found shots of the refinery, sure, but only a few and from a long distance.  The majority of the shots would have been the aforementioned signage, the red bricks the streets are made up of, broken glass strewn through the gravel, old mortared stone walls, patterns left by glue when tiles were pulled up, the POW/MIA Memorial, and perspective shots of old telegraph wires stretching through old brick alleys.  The interesting and profound is everywhere you look and we should not be punished for attempting to preserve a sense of wonder and beauty in our world.

  20. Eboli?  My God, it’s Escherichia coli carrying the Ebola virus!  We’re all doomed.
    Though I might prefer gastric death to living in a police state.

  21. Well, I know how to cool everything out. Make sure you are wearing a Turban, the latest hip-hop styles or a Mohawk. This will surely bring out the fair and equal judgement of the Police. Aside from the rights reducing nature of this scenario it is also an inefficient use of Police resources. They should be responding to accidents, patrolling high crime areas, supporting the local baked goods industry etc. This is what’s wrong with America from my viewpoint, not these other notions that have been bandied about recently. Unfortunately, I am reminded of the lyrics to “Holiday In Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys.
    Okay, the rant is finished.

  22. It’s what they do after they decide you might be suspicious. I’m fine with an officer asking for I.D., and asking a few questions.

    But too often they veer into enforcing stupid lies about the “9-11 law”.

    They go from the legitimate “this is suspicious; I should inquire” to the offensive “I don’t like this guy, screw the law, let’s make him miserable.”

    1. I’d be fine with them asking my name…not for my ID. Personally, I believe that since police routinely ask for Drivers Licenses, which ARE I.D., it’s become the default position to ask for it.  When, it should only be the default position to ask who you are.  …and only then, if there is a very good reason to ask you.

  23. I think the terrorists just officially won.

    Now I wonder how that “War on Drugs” thing is going . . .

    1. What does San Diego have to do with this story? Are they doing the same thing that Long Beach is doing, or similar?

  24. If only he hadn’t sadly passed away from cancer earlier this year, this would be a perfect job for Ben Masel, who made a living being arrested for doing perfectly legal things and then suing the police departments in question (ironically, given this thread, in Wisconsin more often than not). A few successful lawsuits in a row would usually succeed in educating a police department like nothing else could.

  25. Most places that are off limits have signs, No pictures,no tresspass,  etc.  With out signs the police have no case.  Or have we given the country to the commies.

  26. It seems to read:”Guide for our officers: Someone bothering you? See someone whose appearance  you don’t like? Got a gut feeling about someone but no real evidence or suspicion? need a homeless person out of the way so Mc MceeRich can walk by unassailed with the sight of human sewage? Someone you read on the internet and didn’t like what they said? 

    Try to determine if the person has a cell phone or other device with a camera (even a gum wrapper and pencil will pass muster. A stick laying nearby and some sand that could have been used to ‘pass a message’ may also be plausible.). Next, look for some form of infrastructure nearby (a transformer box or street light or telephone wire will do in a pinch). Ask them why they are observing said infrastructure. If they say they were or were not, detain them and if you can’t find pics (or scratches in the sand) on their camera/device regarding the infrastructure in question, accuse them of deleting it and call that ‘resisting arrest’ and ‘obstruction of an investigation’. This should allow you to arrest anyone you want for whatever reason you please as long as you stick to your story.

    And remember… be careful out there.”

  27. If a “real terrorist” was intent on taking photographs of various potential targets, no one would see them.  They would not be seen like some tourist taking pictures at Disneyland.  Real terrorists hide their intent and do not expose themselves to possible arrest by the local authorities.  All they need is a van and camera with a telephoto lens.

  28. The big refinery in Long Beach is utterly beautiful. I’m pretty sure it was the source for the refinery flares in the LA-scape opening shot of Blade Runner. I can imagine Ridley Scott being as impressed with it on his first trip out of the airport as I was when I first came to this country 20 some-odd years ago and got driven past it out of LAX.  I’m also sure that every photographer in the land would like to take photos of it, whether of the flares, the giant architectural elements, or the close-up textures. I’ve never done so myself because I’m scared of policemen. I guess this post vindicates my scareditude. 

    1. When I was a small child we’d drive past the refinery with its lights and flames and to me it looked like a fairy city. I find that, even as an adult who now lives in LB and knows what comes out of the refinery, I’m still fascinated by the structure. 

      Down in Huntington by the state beach, there’s a plant that had people freaking out when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was originally released. It seemed a little too familiar.

      The structures are at one time mechanical and also whimsical and fantastic. They’re out of place in the landscape. So, it’s not surprising that they draw the eye of artists.

  29. To those who are mentioning beaches and tourism…this is Long Beach. It is all gigantic docks and heavy industry. I know it’s technically a beach in Southern California, but take it from me, it may be only 15 miles away but Huntington Beach it isn’t. 

  30. I consider it highly suspicious that a police officer would act to terrify photographers in such a way.

  31. As a photographer I’ve had my camera taken from my hand and had a police spill the film out onto the ground. And yeah, film, before 9/11. That said, I don’t actually find this department’s policy on it’s own particularly disturbing. Basically I agree with Bkad and a few others above that the particular case in the article with the artist was probably beyond what should be allowed of the police, but I don’t really know all the circumstances or how the artist reacted to police interest.

    The article gripes on there being ‘no police training specific to determining whether a photographer’s subject has “apparent esthetic value.”‘ But c’mon, does anyone have an objective standard of apparent esthetic value? Ask an art professor and maybe a semester later you’ll learn the answer is “no.”

    And really, terrorists being stupid and incompetent has been one of our best protections from terrorism over the past several years: shoe bomber, Times square bomber, etc. So it’s not completely outlandish for a uniformed police questioning some photographer who says they’re looking for “weak points” or some giveaway. I think it just falls under general police alertness, which is kind of their job. I can see how on a case by case basis this could be abused, but this is pretty far from “police state” territory.

  32. Totalitarianism at it’s finest.  We won’t tell you the rules, we won’t define the punishments (but they’ll be harsh), and you had better thank us for our generosity when we don’t bring the hammer down on your heads.

  33. Shouldn’t we be calling police state tactics “police state tactics”. Unless we label such conduct for what it is, we are not going to be able to deal with it in an effective way. Some of us actually grew up at a time when their was not question that police state tactics and storm troopers were categorized as full partners of the devil. Those are the things that were done in “godless” countries that had no respect for human rights. The NSS [national security theater] is upon us. The cost per ticket is
    helping to bring our Nation to financial ruin and public disgrace.

    A combination of factors have joined, in a classic kind of way, to bring police state tactics to our “homeland”. [The move from country and nation to homeland was a good tipoff of what was coming. The script was written in the 20’s and 30’s].

    Those who are interested in this subject should commence a national effort to define and document the police state practices that have been thrust upon us, together with the almost total lack of any meaningful peace-keeping accomplishment of those practices.

    If we count the money expended directly and indirectly upon superficial security practices, and intrusion upon the privacy and liberty of our residents, and add to that the amount of citizen time that is wasted due to the lines and other inconveniences, and the amount of law enforcement overtime that is being racked up, and then check that against the number of actual terrorists apprehended, the cost is beyond belief. Keep in mind that none of that is productive cost. It does not add to our gross national product. Actually due to the time and resources it wastes, it is a huge drag on the gross national product.

    Meanwhile, we are told that hundreds of thousands of aliens come across unprotected areas of our borders in the course of a year. If all of those people, many of whom are relatively simple folk, can get into the country, what would it take for the real bad guys to a dozen people in. Does anyone really believe that they have to take photographs after they get here in order to be sure of what they are going to attack.?

    God Bless America and God Help Us Get Back To Being The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. for we are surely acting like a bunch of subservient cowards.

  34. This is just the general policy of suspicion with no-policy.  Since 9/11, the conditions have grown distinctly weird and intimidating.  I used to shoot models in the Long Beach docks for the esthetic qualities of the area.  A few years ago, I went back, not thinking about how conditions might be radically different.  I pulled into this corrugated metal empty warehouse structure intending to take some images with a single strobe.  Within 2 minutes, there were several vehicles pulling in to see what I’m doing, each with some kind of plain clothes security person holding a walkie-talkie, etc.  I was told I had to leave immediately, but one guy who was more pleasant said I could stay maybe 30 minutes if I shot quickly and moved out. 

    Then another guy pulls in, nicer American car, and tells me curtly I had to get out of there immediately.  He didn’t identify himself, ask me what I was doing there, nothing.  I explained that the other security person had phoned to his superior and been told I was OK to be there for a short time.  He said, I don’t care what the guy told you, I’m telling you to get out of here now.  I told him I didn’t care for his attitude but packed up and departed.  That’s how things are in the post 9/11 atmosphere.

  35. As a shy amateur photographer, I’m often intimidated by the thought of being stopped for taking photos when I’m out and about – to the point where I often don’t bring my camera with me anymore. But it’s not just the threat of security guards (with whom I would relish the opportunity to tell off, actually) or police – the entire general population looks at you suspiciously when you’re taking pictures of anything but your friends and family, no matter how big your camera.

    I take a lot of photos with my smartphone these days (since I don’t often carry any of my real cameras around) and I get glares all the time, because I’m out by myself taking pictures of seemingly weird things (interesting architecture, signage/writing, just random stuff) in otherwise normal places. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, and discouraging to amateur photographers.

    I have photographed industrial stuff along the coast (including Long Beach) with no issue, but then I did it sans tripod or anything – which is clearly what terrorists scoping the place out would do too.

  36. So, we are now assuming the worse of complete strangers who take pictures. Sounds a little too Orwellian and a little like superstitions that held that photos stole the human soul.

    But more than anything, it clearly defines the paranoid culture that we have allowed ourselves to become. If 9.11 did indeed happen as we are told it did, then we have already lost the war because we surrendered our freedom to live as we choose and took up a fearful existence where there is a threat in every shadow, every stranger and every action. 

    For this, our government is no doubt quite happy… and keeping us here will certainly be a goal that is worthy of their efforts.

  37. Reminds me of a documentary I saw about North Korea on Netflix. Police followed around a crew that were posing as doctors (they did bring along a real doctor as well of course) and they would take pictures of the town as they were escorted about and their escort would tell them what they could and could not photograph. Mostly they were alowed to photograph Kim Jong Il and his daddy along with a few other monuments to NK greatness.

  38. He says he has no plans to implement guidelines for these photographer detentions, but I’m betting a certain dimwitted Long Beach Police Chief will change his mind on that one.  Having a bunch of ACLU attorneys so far up his ass that they need WiFi installed in his colon will often make an impression on a person.

    1. > a bunch of ACLU attorneys so far up his ass that
      > they need WiFi installed in his colon

      I hear BART has some unused cellular repeaters to pitch in.

  39. The problem is, though, that an overzealous “protector of the home front” won’t care to peruse your photos (which, BTW sound fabulous).  Rather, he or she will simply confiscate (or destroy) your memory card – because: A) it’s faster, and B) there is no evidence that you were, in fact, photographing the refinery for aesthetic, rather than diabolical reasons.  Sad really, but that’s life in the post-9/11 US of A.

  40. California is like most other states. If you can shoot it from public property, you’re allowed to take the picture. For my safety, these days I carry the PetaPixel photographer’s rights grey cards. They were reviewed here, are well made (I’ve even given a few as gifts), and show that you really do understand what you are and are not allowed to do.


  41. I emailed our mayor about this.  As a photographer who loves shooting my city Long Beach, this weirded me out quite a bit. I am going on a boat trip with a council woman this week, I’ll make sure to bring it up and hope I don’t get busted for taking pictures in the harbor.  

  42. Funny thing, the cops rolled up on me while I was taking photos of that exact refinery last year. I explained that I have a thing for the American flag and they left me alone.

  43. From the article, “asking about an establishment’s hours of operation” could land you on a SAR (Suspicious Activity Report). 

    Hopefully stores have their hours posted.

  44. The Chief’s ‘policy’ is so wrong in so many ways. When cameras are criminalized, only criminals will have cameras. As a working photographer in public places for overt 35 years, I have run into photo-restrictive issues similar to this for years. The end result for me is that you can’t shoot with your hands cuffed behind your back. Push the envelop but be respectful and polite. 
    And be sure to check out this worthy group who has been dealing with a Long Beach type situation for years.


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