Is Photography a crime in Phoenix?

April 2nd, 2009

When writer and amateur photographer William J. Nash-McAdam and a friend drove from Mesa to Downtown Phoenix last weekend to take photos of the cityscape, they never imagined they would end up as subjects of a Homeland Security investigation. Nash-McAdam, who has been photographing the Valley for 14 years, and a friend parked at the Burton Barr Central Library and took the light rail to Central Station. Upon arriving at Central Station, they noticed that the blue rails of the Bloom structure looked nice against the backdrop of the Westward Ho. They took photos, cameras aimed high to capture the antenna on top of the building.

They were then approached by a Phoenix Police Department officer who was patrolling the station. According to Nash-McAdam, the officer asked them what they were doing, to which he replied that they were taking some photographs for personal use. The photographer states that the officer accused them of lying, and told them that he saw them taking pictures of a Federal Building that he claimed was located to the south of them, the exact opposite direction they would have been pointing their cameras to photograph the Westward Ho. Nash-McAdam states that he asked the officer which building he was referring to, but the officer refused to identify which specific building was the Federal Building in question.

According to Nash-McAdam, the officer also informed him that he could also not take photographs of the light rail, bus stops, bank buildings, stadiums, street lights, or the airport. When asked why that was not allowed, the photographer says that the officer threatened him to try it and see. When the officer was asked what statute they were infringing upon, Nash-McAdam says that the officer told him to Google it.

After taking the IDs of the two photographers and stating that he was calling for backup, the officer returned. According to Nash-McAdam, he again interrogated them about why they needed to take photographs of the city, and informed them that Federal Buildings were all around. According to the photographer, the officer informed them that their detention was a Homeland Security issue.

When the officer finally let the two go, he left the photographers with a warning that he would be watching their activities.

Nash-McAdam spoke to two other people with cameras in the Copper Square area. According to him, one photographer stated that he had been confronted by police about taking a photograph of Civic Square with the Bank of America building in the background, and the other stated that he was confronted by officers for taking photos of Chase Field.

While Nash-McAdam doesn’t think that this incident will keep him from visiting Downtown Phoenix in the future, he says that it has cemented his view that Phoenix is a “police state to me when held in comparison to my hometown of Orange County and the numerous other cities I’ve traveled to.”

“I find it ironic they’re building this art bloom right next to a federal building. Are they going to harass people who take pictures of this major point of interest that is being so touted by the mayor?”

One of the most disturbing parts of this story, besides the officer’s unwillingness to cite a specific statute they were in violation of, was his statement that the forbidden buildings are all around. Apparently, this means that virtually all photography could now be presumed to be banned in Downtown Phoenix.

Perhaps the reason the officer had so much difficulty in citing a statute that forbids the photographing of things as innocuous as a light pole, is because none exists. What it appears the officer was referring to was a joint FBI and Department of Homeland Security memo dated August 3, 2004, that requests local agencies “report information concerning suspicious or criminal activity to their local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).” A copy of this memo is available on the website of a Wisconsin municipality. This memo contains a similar list of items that are identified as “critical infrastructure” including:

  • Banking and Finance
  • Chemical
  • Defense Industrial Base
  • Electric Power
  • Emergency Services
  • Food/Agriculture
  • Information Technology
  • National Monuments and Icons
  • Oil and Natural Gas
  • Postal and Shipping
  • Public Health
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation (Rail/Mass Transit, Maritime, Aviation, Highway)
  • Water

According to the FBI-DHS memo, people should be reported to their local terrorist task force for “showing uncommon interest in critical infrastructure/key resource facilities, networks, or systems (e.g. photographing or videotaping assets).” And according to the memo, photographing something as innocuous as “water” qualifies as threatening “critical infrastructure.” What is particularly telling about the FBI-DHS memo is that, while it cites the USA PATRIOT ACT for its definition of “critical infrastructure” it does not cite any statute that would make photography of such infrastructure illegal.

Unfortunately, incidents of photographer harassment are not limited to Phoenix. Jim Poulos, a train affecionado, has been told by officers in New York City that he was not allowed to take photographs in the Subway, when photography is explicitly permitted by an affirmative statute. Poulos has been collecting stories of photographers who have been wrongfully harassed by police at the War on Photography website. The stories, collected mainly from the United States, include one report, similar to the Phoenix incident, in which a photographer was questioned by FBI Agents for photographing in the general direction of an FBI building in downtown Amherst, NY. The site includes several accounts of harassment for taking photos on public transit from Chicago to Philadelphia.

BBC-affiliated journalist Greg Palast was criminally charged for photographing an ExxonMobil refinery in conjunction with a documentary about the living conditions of Katrina refugees. While the charges were ultimately dropped in his case, this kind of harassment of photographers by the authorities has a chilling effect on everyone who uses a camera.

Photography is not a crime. If the City of Phoenix wants a thriving, vibrant downtown, they need to instruct their police officers to relax their harassment of their guests who come to their streets–our streets–to capture the beauty that our city has to offer.

  • andrewkfromaz

    Honestly, I wish you would apply the same standards of journalism to the premise of this article as you did to investigating it. I’m not saying I think Nash-McAdam is lying, but the rest of the basis of this certainly seems anecdotal at best. While I wouldn’t enjoy being harassed by a police officer for a non-crime, I wonder whether we need to get too worked up over it at this level.

    • http://chadswaney.com Chad Swaney

      Andrew-

      Thanks for the feedback. To your point about accepting a first-person account, my article is an editorialized retelling of events described by someone I believe to be reliable. Could he have been making it up? Sure, but unlikely, because it fits into the pattern of harassment that has been seen elsewhere, as discussed in the article. I have no reason to believe that the behavior of officers would be different here in Phoenix. I plan on doing more research to see if other photographers in Phoenix have had similar experiences.

      To your final point, I disagree that one should accept being harassed by a police officer, even if it is only a minor inconvenience. Any harassment by police is very serious, and we should get worked up over it.

      • J in AZ

        I agree Chad. We DO need to get worked up over stuff like this. This is happening all to frequently, I have encountered it several times, most recently while photographing in a public place on the campus of ASU. As an avid photographer and graphic arts professional, I am well aware of rights in this manner and communicate politely with police officers & generally have no problem other than wasted time – however police officers generally are not as well versed and frequently go too far in these cases. Photographers would serve themselves well to learn their rights (Google “photographer’s rights”) and learn them well. Cases like this that get to court (such as in Seattle and NYC) are ruling against the police, who are generally ignorant of the public’s rights in this area.

        And if you’re out taking pics and see a police officer coming, you’d be stunned how effective an ACLU card in your wallet is when showing your ID. By the way, you should contact ACLU AZ on this issue…

        –J

      • J in AZ

        Just a follow-up, a similar account in the UK…
        http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/07/gov_photography/

  • jose

    Good, informative article.

    I’m actually bookmarking it in my mobile web browser, so that I can cite it should I ever be similarly detained.

    Has there been any attempt to reach the Phoenix PD community relations office? That step could help prevent some grief in the future.

    • http://chadswaney.com Chad Swaney

      Jose-

      I hope you are never detained by the police for photography.

      We plan on expanding this story in the future, so I will certainly be researching what Phoenix PD has to say about photography in downtown.

  • Evan

    This is infuriating. I want to know the name of the officer. This needs to a follow-up.

  • http://cenpho.tv Dave Brookhouser

    This is not the first time I’m heard of this … I actually had a cop try to take MY camera from me (because I took photos of a police situation).

    This is absolutely insane. Any pictures taken in PUBLIC are legal.

    Hell right now you can go to Google Street View and see EVERYTHING and even peer into some windows (again, because they are taken from PUBLIC property they are completely legal).

    Because of this being the 3rd story I’ve heard of this, it seems pretty clear to me the Phoenix Police officers have been TOLD to harass photographers. Sadly with the Mayor seemingly being afraid of “his” own police force, he surely will do NOTHING to correct this issue. FAIL.

    -Dave Brookhouser

  • Julia

    Great article. I was not aware it was this bad. This is becoming ridiculous & sad.

  • Steve

    Be advised, the building at the NE corner of Roosevelt and Central/1st St rail station is actually Phoenix Police detective headquarters. There is also a ATF headquarters not far from where you were as well.

    So saying, this guy was out of order…you need to contact the Police Public Information Officer and explain what happened. Go through the office number for the main police headquarters. I’msure you were smart enough to get name and badge number. This should be dealt with as a 1st Amendment right.

  • http://wesleytech.com WesleyTech.com

    Thanks for the report. Police are always prone to abuse their powers and try to infringe upon the rights of the citizens. Know your rights and let the officers know that you know your rights.

  • http://www.phxrailfood.com David SB

    This sounds like an abuse of police power, but at this point it’s told only from one point of view. As suggested above, I’d like to hear a response from the Phoenix PD on this. I hope that DPJ will follow up to the extent possible and that the traditional media will also investigate this incident. Regardless of the conduct of the Phoenix PD, any attempt to prevent people from taking pictures of government bulidings in a major city’s downtown seems absurd when most of them are already visible on Google Street View.

  • http://acmephotography.net/ Adam N – AcmePhoto

    Did they not get the police officer(s) names and / or badge numbers….?

    Also if you (anyone) is ever detained and you believe there is a problem it is your responsibility to ASK (demand) POLITELY for a supervising officer to be on scene. If you ask for a supervisor they will call one. Don’t be a jerk, but this will help document any problem.

    If a PIO (public information officer) is called out (esp if it’s after 9-5 or a weekend) the MEDIA will probably hear the page go out and it will be out of the normal so there’s also more of a chance that media could roll up because a PIO means something out of the norm.

    I’d love to hear more about this, but without more documentation, there is not much the two can do. They could / should have requested a supervisor when they said they were “calling for backup”…

    Anyway, let me know if there’s any more info.

    ~Adam / AcmePhoto

  • TommyC1

    Folks, please keep in mind the story at this point is one-sided, and has been repeated through at least one person who was not there. No offense to Chad, at all. But every story has at least two sides and the other side has not yet been heard.

    Let’s wait to hear what, if anything, Chad hears from Phoenix P.D. regarding this incident before getting too excited over it.

    At this point it could be that the Phoenix officer in question just transferred from MCSO and he’s still using the gestapo tactics of the country sheriff.

  • JJ

    It is important that the photographer make an internal affairs complaint against the officer, so that this can be adjudicated.

  • http://www.discarted.wordpress.com JH

    Definitely contact the PPD and ask them to clarify their policies. They may have no idea of the law regarding this (which is sad in itself), so they think they’re perfectly entitled to harass anyone they see fit under the auspices of national security. The more people that make a fuss, the more they are forced to review what they’re doing.

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  • http://www.rcodaphotography.com rcoda

    I photograph all the time in downtown Phoenix. I do go early on Sunday mornings when I’m not int he way. Maybe using an 8×10″ camera helps… the terrorists aren’t that sophisticated yet. I have never had a problem in Phoenix. LA at the Disney Concert Hall, yes, but manageable.

  • http://www.danielalmaraz.com Daniel (tlvsnjunkie)

    You definitely needed to provide some links to helpful information for people who may be harassed about taking pictures in downtown Phoenix. http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm Keep this PDF in your camera bag. It gives good standards for what is legal to photograph in America. We still live in America, right??

    Please, if anyone is harassed by a police officer while taking photographs in public, you need to get their badge number and report them. You have done nothing wrong and they need to leave you alone. The only way this harassment will stop is if there are consequences.

  • http://www.flickr.com/netdep Tim

    I would think Phoenix would be a little more understanding and friendly considering most of Arizona is – economically – in the shitter. Not as much – I think – abuse as ignorance, which nevertheless not an excuse. I am sure this same Officer would not accept ignorance of the law a defense if he was arresting someone.

  • Rocky

    A completely uncorroborated story and all you lemmings believe this is the gospel fact. I want to hear the cop’s side of this story. I doubt this even happened. I think this is just more cop bashing as usual.

    • http://downtowntphoenixjournal.com Tyler Hurst

      And that’s why it was included in the blog section. We’re working on getting a comment from the police.

    • http://www.phoenixdowntownjournal.com/?fbconnect_action=myhome&userid=13 Chad Swaney

      Phoenix Police confirmed that Nash-McAdam was questioned by a MSG (Municipal Security Guard) working for the Phoenix Police transit bureau as part of their policy of questioning photographers at Central Station. Check out the New Times follow-up article: http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2009/04/photography_at_transit_station.php

  • http://www.slolane.org Angela Henderson

    I’m from the OC myself, and I can tell you it’s not much better.

  • http://www.leimertparkbeat.com enhager

    Here’s the proof that if you videotape outside the courthouse security officers will threaten to arrest you:

    http://carlosmiller.com/2009/04/06/if-i-catch-you-videotaping-the-building-again-you-will-be-arrested/

  • ASUphxStudent

    This has happened to me before. At the lightrail station at Central and Van Buren, my friends and I were taking a photograph of us. A police officer approached us, told us we were not allowed to be taking photos, asked to see our student IDs, and then told us we were allowed to take photos because we are students. Being slightly confused, we asked him what he meant. He didn’t seem very well-educated on the rule. But we were informed by another officer who approached the situation that students are allowed to take photographs but there is a rule because it is a threat to Homeland Security.

    This definitely needs follow-up. Great story.

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  • http://downtowntphoenixjournal.com Tyler Hurst

    Kudos to the New Times for getting to the bottom of this.

    http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2009/04/photography_at_transit_station.php

  • Richard Durley

    This is nothing new. I’ve been asked to leave Papago Park for taking picture without a permit. I tried to explain that I didn’t need a permit to take a picture of a flower, but the park ranger insisted since I had “professional equipment” I MUST have a permit to photograph. I tried my city counilman, who is so busy with the people’s business that he doesn’t have time to talk to the people, at least gave me the number for the head of the Parks and Rec Dept. I talked to him and he was very understanding. Anyone making even one single penny using a city park must have a permit. Otherwise, feel free to photograph.

    As for the PPD, I’ve been eye’d a few times but never stopped. Most of the time if you stay polite and calm, things won’t get out of hand. If you push it, you’ve fallen into the trap and then you don’t have a leg to stand on.

  • http://perricollins.com Perri

    What a bunch of BS.

    • Richard Durley

      May I please ask what part you find to be “a bunch of BS”? Is it something to do with me personally or just the subject in general?

  • http://stylepeterson.com StylePeterson

    I lived in Phoenix for three years and spent many hours photographing downtown Phoenix (up until this past October). You can see my work at http://stylepeterson,.com where there are numerous photos from downtown Phoenix. I was questioned once in that period and I did my best to be cordial and cooperative. I had captured a shot that included a security camera dome. I showed him the shot and explained what I was trying to capture artistically in the photo. My ID was never asked for and I was allowed to continue my photography once i explained my purpose. In fact, we had a pleasant conversation about photography and the the officer suggested some other places in downtown that would make a great photo. The only restriction was using a tripod in certain areas. In defense of the police and secutrity guards I have never had an issue. I stood out like a sore thumb during the summer months when I was often the only guy walking on the street in the heat of the day. They could not miss seeing me.

    I think there an element to yur story that is missing. Was something done to provoke the officer?

  • http://www.rcodaphotography.com RCoda

    You need to get a bigger camera. I have photographed ALL of these places and NEVER once has anyone bothered me. And I used a tripod on every shot. Burton Barr “at night”; Chase plaza “from the parking deck”; Central Ave and the Dodge building “from the Starbucks”; Van Buren and McDowell… you name it. The difference… I use big cameras. 4×5″, 8×10″ and even 11×14″ view cameras.

    Now, Disney Concert Hall in LA… that’s another story. They’ll tell you that at 7:00 AM on a Sunday morning (when there’s nobody around) that you can’t photograph from the sidewalk. The sidewalk is 50 feet wide and I was 30 feet from the building. Then they’ll tell you that they own all the way to the curb, which they don’t. The city owns that… they own just a few inches from the building. So they made me move another 10 feet or so. I changed my lens and I was good.

    Phoenix… not a big deal. Just be polite, show them what you are doing. Carrying a business card is also a good idea.

  • jerry warriner

    When I was a teenager and young man in the 1950s and ’60s, I was an avid photographer who roamed New York City taking photos of buildings, people, children playing in the park with their dogs, subways and elevated lines, airports and just about everything else you can name. No one ever stopped or harassed me.

    Now I’m 65 years old and very happy to have lived at a time when we had the freedom to do as we wished, with our cameras.

    Today there is so much fear and paranoia that I laugh when I hear someone call this a “free country.” I’ve witnessed or heard too many accounts of police officers who are out of control — stopping, questioning, harassing, threatening and arresting people, not to enforce the law but to meet arrest quotas, which they deny exist.

    The situation will only get worse. This is such a different world from the one I knew as a youngster and young man that the older I get the more I treasure the past. It wasn’t ideal in every respect.. Yet, I had a feeling that once-forbidden areas were opening up and the trend would continue. I wish that those who didn’t live back then could have experienced what it was like.

  • D Schaubert

    I suggest everyone downloads the Photographers Rights pamphlet and keep a copy with their camera. After reading it you will have specific knowledge as to what photography is and is not legal in the USA and will know exactly what to do if you are confronted by an officer in random harassment mode.

    • D Schaubert

      Hmmm, the system deleted the link

      www dot krages dot com slash phoright dot htm

      or just google ‘photographers right’