Photographers’ rights confusion lands on my doorstep

Lately we’ve all heard a lot about the many misinterpretations of the rights of photographers in public. Governments seem to be the biggest offenders lately when it comes to photographing or recording in public, particularly with regard to recording police doing their jobs. Some have gone so far as to delete photos from a camera or cell phone, though in at least one high-profile case deleting video led to evidence-tampering charges against one officer.

But it’s really never been an issue I’ve had to contend with before aside from once being asked not to photograph in an area that was owned by the Regional Transporation District — the public-private partnership that operates public transport in Denver. I’m not sure they have the right to bar photographers on their installations, because I’m not sure the land isn’t public property, but I decided not to argue since the guard who asked me to move said it would be fine if I shot from the gutter, about three feet back from where I was standing.

So I haven’t personally had this pervasive confusion about photographers’ rights hit me directly — until today.

A photo I took that led to police intervention.
A photo I took that led to police intervention. Fire trucks at the Colorado State Capitol; I didn’t know if there would be a story there or not when I took the photo, or what my picture-making would lead to. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Walking home from the newsroom, I saw firetrucks heading for the state Capitol building. Unsure if there was an issue, I stopped for a moment to take a cell-phone picture of a ladder truck in front of the Capitol. It wasn’t even very good because I was still framing it when the light changed (I was in the middle of an intersection trying to get low enough to get a traffic signal out of the frame). I stepped back on the curb and heard a yell from nearby.

“What the [expletive] do you think you’re doing? What give’ you the right to take pi’tures of the fire trucks?!”

I wasn’t the only one with a cell phone camera out in the area, unsurprisingly, but I knew it was directed at me. I ignored it and walked up to a Denver fire fighter and Colorado state trooper who were standing near the entrance to the Capitol building and asked what had happened. I was assured it was just a fire alarm but that it appeared to be a false alarm. Relieved, I turned to leave.

Coming about, I found myself face to face with a short, very tanned (or very dirty) woman in filthy, threadbare clothing who immediately yelled at me again. Something about how can I take pictures of the Capitol, what am I doing there. Her speech was slurred and it was difficult to understand just what she was saying. I did get, “Why you takin’ pictures?” and I responded, “Because I have a right to and thought it might be newsworthy.”

I didn’t stop to confront her; I hoped that the state trooper behind me would defuse her a bit so I just kept walking. I heard her start asking them questions and felt the worst must be over.

A block later I started to hear the yelling behind me again. I walked faster; so did she. She began to threaten that she was “going to get me” and that she would “[expletive] (me) up” and “break (my) [expletive] phone!” As she gained on me I began to actually examine the situation. I didn’t see a weapon, and she wasn’t particularly large, but I didn’t want a confrontation if it could be avoided.

Then she yelled that I’d better call the police because they were the only thing that would stop her from “beating (my) [expletive] fat ass,” and I decided that she was right.

So I dialed 9-1-1.

I told the operator where I was and that I was being actively pursued and threatened by an unknown female assailant. She asked for description, I gave her what I could and requested officers immediately because I was only about 100 feet from my pursuer.

Here’s where I started to get upset. The dispatcher, rather than offering any assurances, started to yell at me that her questions had to be answered before she would do anything. I gave her the answers I had and said “I don’t know” when I had none. I requested officers immediately (a second time) and told her my new location since I was moving, only to be met with another snappy response.

After several blocks of this back and forth and my pursuer getting to about 50 feet behind me, the dispatcher told me that officers were at my original location and couldn’t find me. I was incredulous since I’d been updating her with every street I passed. I gave her my new location and the name of the next street I was approaching, and, as the crazy lady got within about 15 feet of me, all the while screaming obscenities and threats, I started to really worry and demanded to know if officers were nearby or not.

Two Denver Police cruisers pulled up seconds later and as I stopped next to the first car’s hood, the officers that jumped out grabbed my pursuer about 18 inches from me. Those of you who know me know I’m not in the best shape of my life. I power-walked up Capitol hill and all the way to St. John’s Cathedral in the space of about 4 minutes, and I wasn’t going to make it much further at that pace.

As the officers asked the woman what she was doing chasing me, she belligerently continued to hurl threats and profanities, explaining that I had taken a pictures of a fire truck and had to be stopped; that I was breaking the law. The police calmly explained that 1) it wasn’t her job to deal with me if I had broken a law, and 2) no laws had been broken — I have every right to photograph a public building, a publicly-owned fire truck, and public servants (police and fire fighters) doing their jobs.

Denver police place the now-handcuffed woman in the back of a cruiser.
Denver police place the now-handcuffed woman in the back of a cruiser. I was shaking too much to get a worthwhile phone photo before this moment. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Of course, they had to explain this to her several times before it became evident to all involved that she was inebriated well past the point of paying attention or comprehending any of what they were saying.

She was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. An officer asked me about filing a complaint, and said that the woman would be spending the night in detox.

A resident of the apartment building on the corner where my pursuit ended came out to inform the officers and I that the very same woman had only the prior Friday been evicted from that building for making threats toward other residents and other issues.

While taking my name and statement, multiple officers assured me that I had done nothing wrong, that there were no restrictions on public photography in Denver or Colorado.

So this hotly debated bit of legal confusion came a touch closer for me today, in an entirely unexpected way.

Shout out to @nate2point0 suggested that the full story might be worth a blog post when I tweeted about the bizarre incident.