I shot this photo in May, 2010 near Chinatown in Chicago. I’m posting it now because I returned to this location today to shoot a few photos, and was briefly detained by Metra police (Metra is the Chicago commuter rail network). This area sits just north of 18th St. at Wentworth St. There is a gravel, one lane drive leading uphill to a clearing with great views of the city. Most of this area is about to be developed as part of Ping Tom Park, a lovely park on the edge of Chinatown. For now, the gravel drive is used as overflow parking for Chinatown, which can get busy, especially on the weekend.
That’s why I was there. I had gone to Chinatown for lunch and to pick up a few groceries. It was busy, usual for Sunday, and I ended up parking in this area. After lunch and shopping, my plan was to shoot a few photos with my toy cameras.
I had barely started when I noticed what looked like a police officer a couple of hundred feet away, waving me over. I figured he might have a couple of questions, because cameras seem to make everyone paranoid these days. He motioned me over to his police car, parked across some railroad tracks on what was obviously Metra’s property. He was yelling right from the start. I tried explaining that I was just shooting a few photos, but he kept interrupting, saying I was trespassing. I had read, just last night, an ACLU brief about photographer’s rights (again, everyone with a camera is apparently suspect), and thought I knew what to say. But, trying to say anything seemed to infuriate this cop, and, yelling loudly, he threatened to arrest me if I said another word. He made me drop my photo bag, produce my ID, and place my hands on the police car. He frisked me, and called in my ID. All this time, he was being as condescending as possible, insinuating that I shouldn’t be so far from home (Chicago’s Chinatown is about 20 minutes from my house) and refusing to answer my questions.
When my ID came back clean, he softened a bit, and seemed to realize he had been way too aggressive, but still pawed through my camera bag without my permission and kept going on about the “post 9/11 world”. He finally let me go “with a warning”, but I’ve been angry and troubled by it since.
Here’s a screenshot from Google Earth (click on it to see a much larger version). I was standing at about position A, waiting for the sun to come out from behind a cloud so I could shoot the old iron train bridge, B, framed by the branches of the trees. The cop was at position C when he called and waved me over, and we met at his car, D (there’s a car in the Google Earth shot-the Metra Police must park there regularly). I don’t know if I was trespassing or not, to be honest. The area I shaded in blue is the approximate boundary of land owned by the Chicago Park District that is slated for development. I may have been within the Park District property, or I may not have been. Ultimately, that’s unimportant. If someone is photographing on private property, they must cease shooting photos and vacate the property if asked. That’s the law. The law does not state that police have the right to search your belongings and frisk you for trespassing. They can ask you to leave.
I understand the need for security, but I also know that the law is very clear on the fact that it is perfectly legal to photograph infrastructure and buildings, even private property, from public spaces (the Google Earth screenshot above is proof that photos of a location are irrelevant to a potential terrorist, as better views can be found online). If you are on private property, the law is what I described above. I feel that the officer went beyond his legal rights, and as a result violated my rights. I just don’t know what to do about it. I know that a lot of people have had much worse treatment at the hands of the police (and Homeland Security) for photographing things. This is a big enough issue that Googling “photographer's rights” turns up thousands of hits (including one from me that I posted in June, 2008). What happened to me today was stressful and upsetting, but ultimately such a small event that I doubt anyone would care, even if the cop was out of line. So, do I report it, or let it go? I haven’t decided.
Today, my Facebook status read “Remembering the day Americans started giving up their freedoms and rights in order to cultivate a false sense of security.” Yes, the cop was right about one thing. We certainly are living in the post 9/11 world.