In 2011, Long Beach Post reporter Greggory Moore was detained by cops for taking photos outside a courthouse. Eight sheriffs deputies detained, frisked, and interrogated him, saying his actions were suspicious.
In the wake of 9/11, the Los Angeles Police Department established an anti-terror laundry list of 48 suspicious activities, including taking pictures with “no aesthetic value,” that could be used to stop people for questioning.
The spirit of that list was, for the most part, adopted by the L.A. Sheriff's Department and the Long Beach Police Department, and officers from those organizations have been accused of detaining legitimate photogs for snapping shots of what law enforcement deemed to be sensitive sites, such as courthouses, refineries, jails and tall buildings.
Here's how the ACLU describes one such incident in which cops harassed a photog:
LASD deputies detained and searched Shawn Nee for photographing turnstiles on the Los Angeles Metro, asking if he planned to sell the photos to al-Qaeda and threatening to put his name on the FBI’s “hit list.”
Today, the ACLU announced, the sheriff's department was handed its ass in court over the issue.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, those elected officials who run the county and write the checks when deputies screw up, approved a settlement with the ACLU over its federal lawsuit against the department.
The ACLU argued that the policy of detaining photographers for taking pictures violated both the first (freedom of speech) and fourth (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures) amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Three photogs named as plaintiffs, including Moore, will share $50,000 in damages. But here's the good part: Deputies will have to undergo training on how to deal with people taking pictures. According to an ACLU statement:
The training, supplied through a newsletter detailing the LASD policy and given to all new recruits and to all deputies assigned to patrol, states that members of the public 'have a First Amendment right to observe, take photographs, and record video in any public place where they are lawfully present” and prohibits deputies from “interfering, threatening, intimidating, blocking or otherwise discouraging' photographers from taking photos or video unless they are violating a law.
It could be an especially stinging settlement for recently elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell. He was a top dog at the LAPD when its post-9/11, anti-terror policies were being drafted. And he was the chief of the Long Beach Police Department when it, too, adopted a similar stance toward photographers.
“If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery, it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual,” he said in 2011 after Sander Roscoe Wolff, a contributor to Long Beach Post, was detained for snapping photos of a North Long Beach refinery.
McDonnell, clearly an acolyte of the LAPD's original, unconstitutional post-9/11 policy, will now have to ensure that the ACLU settlement is implemented at the sheriff's department.
L.A. Weekly's own Ted Soqui even once got caught up in this anti-terrorism hysteria when, taking shots of the L.A. County Jail, he was confronted by six deputies, at least one of whom told him that photography on that street was not allowed because it was a matter of “national security.”
Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, says:
The training established by this settlement should ensure that photographers around Los Angeles County—as well as the general public—can exercise their right to free expression without unnecessary harassment. We are heartened by the county’s willingness to address this issue with a common-sense approach that will become standard practice from now on.