When Police Try to Make Photography a Crime

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Law, Policing, Technology & Crime
Tags: , , , ,

I always try to take a balanced approach when examining police conduct on this blog. I feel I owe it to my students, and to readers in general, to contribute to reasoned discussion and debate about the role of police in modern society by sharing both the good and the bad about police behavior.

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My personal position is that most officers do a fine job – despite making mistakes at times – but we rarely hear about the positives.

I’ve written previously, though, about cops who’ve bought Christmas gifts for burglary victims or even literally given someone the shirt off their back, as well as about those who go out of their way to protect the constitutional rights of citizens to peacefully protest or record police activities.

So, I was troubled to see a recent post on PINAC (Photography is Not a Crime) about an officer in Florida who was found to have violated his department’s policies in response to the lawful, constitutionally protected videotaping of public police behavior.

Watch for yourself.

BCSO Task Force Arrest of PINAC Editor

The officers in the video not only do an incredibly poor job of managing the situation overall, in my opinion, but more troubling (to me at least) is that they appear to be engaging in a form of pseudospeciation, which is the idea that one group views members of another group as dangerous and/or unworthy of fair treatment.

The term is normally applied to differences between ethnic or racial groups, but in this case it appears related to subcultural differences. The police view the photographer as “one of those guys,” which is apparently code for someone from an “out group” who should be treated with suspicion and taught a lesson.

Regardless of the underlying causes, the officers’ superiors obviously agreed that misconduct occurred, having issued at least one of the officers a letter of reprimand for his behavior in this case.

And, that officer, identified by PINAC as Agent Brian Stoll in a follow-up post about the above incident, is no stranger to allegations of misconduct.

A public records request by PINAC to the officer’s agency, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), resulted in the release of 28 documents, some of which describe specific misconduct allegations against “Agent S,” as he’s referred to in the released forms (although one of the forms, dated 2/3/11, does list “Brian Stoll” by name). Fourteen of the documents reference various use of force incidents (the released form is titled “Response to Resistance”), but do not appear to have been generated by a specific complaint of misconduct.

Instead, those forms seem to be documenting incidents in which an injury occurred during an arrest or other encounter, and the matter is being reviewed by the agency’s administrators to make sure the officers’ behavior was in compliance with department policy. Of the fourteen, thirteen of the forms indicate that the department’s internal review found the officers’ behavior to be “in compliance.”

One of those, though, indicates that Agent S was not in compliance when a Taser was used improperly during an arrest.

2013-U-110 - 2013-U-110.pdf 2014-01-01 05-49-01Excerpt from 10/29/13 BCSO memo regarding misuse of force by Agent S

In three of the 28 documents, Agent S is listed only as a witness or as an indirect participant.

The eleven remaining documents (see the table below) describe specific allegations of misconduct against Agent S, referencing incidents that occurred over an eight year period between June of 2005 and October of 2013. The outcome of nine of them was either unknown or the allegation was determined by an internal BCSO investigation to be unfounded.

Only two, including the above incident involving PINAC, were substantiated and resulted in some type of consequence for Agent S.

It’s very interesting that the two incidents that did result in substantiated misconduct involved either video evidence (in the PINAC case) or the combined reporting of multiple police witnesses at the scene (misuse of the Taser).

Incident Date Reported on Date Allegation Outcome Outcome Date
6/1/05 7/15/05 Rudeness and improper citation Unknown  8/14/05?
9/3/08 9/4/08 Rudeness, unlawlful search/seizure, and damage to personal property Unfounded 10/1/08
10/2/08 10/03/08 Lying in police report and planting drugs Unfounded 10/15/08
Unknown 12/17/08 Improper arrest/detention and search of vehicle Unfounded 1/9/09
8/9/07 4/9/09 False arrest Unfounded 5/12/09
2005 9/1/10 Unspecified violations of law and department policy Unfounded 2/3/11 – According to time stamp on the document, employee involved was “Brian Stoll”
10/30/12 10/31/12 Use of force Unfounded 11/2/12
12/21/12 12/25/12 False arrest and use of force Unfounded 1 /4/13
7/16/13 7/16/13 Use of force Unfounded 8/1/13
10/17/13 10/17/13 Use of force (Taser) Not in compliance – Letter of counseling 10/29/13
10/23/13 10/23/13 Failure to investigate, failure to document evidence, and failure to provide information Letter of reprimand 10/29/13

Summary of allegations of misconduct against Agent S, 2005 – 2013, as obtained by PINAC

In the end, I’m not sure exactly what hard and fast conclusions we can confidently draw from all this, though. Zealous, proactive police officers are going to generate complaints from suspects, arrestees and others who, rightly or wrongly, feel their rights were violated. Allegations against police aren’t always made with the most honorable of intentions, and they’re not always accurate.

On the other hand, the video evidence above does appear to show that, in this case at least, this officer misinterpreted the law, acted out of personal anger or animosity toward a person perceived to be from an “out group,” and misused the authority granted to his role by society.

Video evidence like this is quite powerful, as it turns out, and perhaps that’s why some officers continue to insist that photography is a crime when it actually isn’t.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. Freedom, by the way says:

    In most jobs, that many write-ups and complaints for misconduct would result in termination or at the very least, a demotion. That deputy has no business interacting with the public. Send him to the archives or send him home.


    • Bob Cameron says:

      I would tend to agree with you that problematic officers need to be dealt with swiftly and surely, but there’s also the issue of false allegations that might be inflating the numbers of complaints. Police officers have plenty of opportunities to create enemies, and it’s entirely possible that some or most of the complaints against Stoll were simply made out of revenge or anger. It’s hard to know for sure.

      What I’d really like to see is a comparison between complaints against Stoll and complaints against other officers who perform similar work in his jurisidction. Is the number, type, or quality of complaints against him the same or different than what’s normally seen? To my mind, that would be more telling.

      What I’m glad to see in this case, though, is that the department has at least responded to the two most recent incidents. I’m not sure if the BCSO is unionized, but if it is, that would impact how discipline is handled. Generally, progressive discipline is the rule, meaning that the lowest level of discipline that would likely cause the desired change in behavior should be used first, and future violations would be met with more severe sanctions.

      Again, I don’t know for sure that this is what’s going on in this case, but I think that is the likely approach.


  2. Richard M Nixon (Deceased) says:

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.


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