Can the police stop photographers from taking photos?

Police stop

The shooting of unarmed 18-year old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson County, Missouri has once again made police brutality a topic of conversation across the media landscape. Some may think that police brutality is on the rise, but more likely, its mobile technology that has brought these incidents to light. With the majority of people in the U.S. owning a smart phone and a high-resolution camera, taking photos of events that would have gone unnoticed a few years ago are now being made available to the public.

Only last month, Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, died from an illegal police chokehold during an encounter on Staten Island, New York. On July 1, 51 year-old Marlene Pinnock, a homeless woman, was attacked by a California Highway Patrol officer on a freeway west of downtown Los Angeles. Both of these were caught on camera. Now, the Ferguson shooting has caused riots and civil unrest.

While digital photography has become the indispensable technology in combating police brutality, photographers are also finding themselves in altercations with the police. Police are forcing photographers to stop taking photos, sometimes making them leave the area or even confiscating their equipment, exemplified in an incident with two reporters, just yesterday. The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were arrested after a SWAT Team entered a McDonalds where the two reporters were working while covering the riots in Ferguson. Reilly snapped a photo of the Team prompting one of the officers to ask him for his identification. He instead requested the officer’s name, whereupon the officer shoved his things into a bag and put him in a pressure hold. According to Reilly, “They essentially acted as a military force . . . . The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.”1

Know Your Rights

Despite what some police officers or other officials may think, taking photos of the police in action is not illegal. In fact, anyone can snap a photo as long as the subject is plainly visible from a public space, although, certain designated Military and Energy installations are off-limits to photography because of national security concerns. Public spaces include federal buildings, transportation facilities, as well as people such as police or other government officials. (See this post for info on taking photos in private spaces) for As noted by the ACLU, being able to photograph incidents like these is not only a constitutional right but a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.

If you can see it and you are on public property, then you can take a photo of it.

More importantly, police officers are also not allowed to confiscate your camera or even demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. And they cannot delete your photographs for any reason. If they do, they may face felony charges. In a recent Nebraska case, Octavius Johnson questioned police as to why his family’s cars were being towed. Johnson found himself the victim of excessive force by the police and the subject of a warrantless search and seizure. Two of Johnson’s brothers filmed the incident but the police confiscated their cameras. Luckily, a man across the street filmed the entire incident leading to the arrest of the police officer (pictured below) for theft, misdemeanor obstruction and tampering with evidence.

Know Your Rights

It’s very important to know your rights so you have the proper information to handle the situation appropriately. But very often, your understanding and that of the police as to the law will differ or the police may find other associated reason to bring you in. For example, the reporters arrested at McDonald’s, discussed earlier were not arrested for taking photos but for failing to provide identification.

After one of their reporters had a confrontation with police while photographing a murder scene, the Baltimore Sun stated, “there seems to be a misconception among some police officers and others in authority that they can stop not only the press but anyone taking pictures or recording police activity at a crime scene.”

That incident occurred this past March. The Sun’s photographer, Chris Assaf, was dispatched to a murder scene. While taking photos, a police officer shoved him away from the crime scene tape, where he had every right to be, while allowing the other people watching to remain. The officer began bullying Assaf, which another Sun photographer, Lloyd Fox, managed to photograph. The entire exchange can be seen in this sequence of photos.

Given the increasing frequency of police harassing photographers, don’t be surprised if it happens to you. The best course of action in any situation is to be polite as possible, despite how hard that may be. Know your rights too. PetaPixel makes a Photographer’s rights card for $10 that you can carry around which may help. Just don’t copy the card and make your own, that would be copyright infringement.

About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


We built Orangenius to help creators succeed. Our comprehensive platform takes the guesswork out of the business of art, so you can focus on creating. Click to see how Orangenius is revolutionizing the creative economy.


The Latest From Artrepreneur

  • How to Earn Your Living as a Travel Photographer

    The prospect of traveling the world while getting paid to work may seem farfetched, but these two photographers have the ticket to landing freelance creative work across the globe. Here, Andy Donohoe and Michaela Trimble share their advice for […]

  • A Recruiter’s Advice for your Video or Motion Design Reel

    Creative Circle recruiter Brooks Rowlett sifts through hundreds of motion design reels and video editor portfolios each week. Here, he shares his best advice for motion designers and video editors looking to land their next big gig. The post A […]

  • From Tattoo Artist to Brand Empire: The Rise of the Ink Mogul

    The savvy tattoo artist uses brand recognition to launch a multimedia business. These four artists have leveraged their underground celebrity status to build a brand empire, complete with product lines, book deals, and TV contracts. The post From […]

  • Exploring the Intersection of Art and Technology

    The advent of technology is re-shaping the practice of art. These educational institutions, artists, and startups are exploring art and technology's convergence in today's increasingly digital world. The post Exploring the Intersection of Art and […]

  • Work with an Artist Mentor to Get Your Career on Track

    Many of the world's most recognized artists sought inspiration and guidance from their peers. Gain insight into your practice and learn about the business of art by finding an artist mentor whose career aligns with your own vision for success. The […]

  • Why Artists Need to Make Copyright Registration a Priority

    Sharing, posting, and distributing your work online is easier than ever - but often times, visual artists find themselves dealing with online piracy issues as a result of that practice. Initiating a copyright registration routine can curb the […]

  • How Artists on Social Media Can Grow Their Following

    By sticking to the tenets of the social media pyramid, artists on social media can develop an engaged audience. The post How Artists on Social Media Can Grow Their Following appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How [and Where] to Submit an Art Fair Application

    Submitting an art fair application doesn't have to be an arduous process. We break down which fairs are currently accepting submissions, and how you should apply. The post How [and Where] to Submit an Art Fair Application appeared first on […]

  • The Paperwork Behind Your Art Business [Part I]

    In this ongoing series, we'll review the various documents needed to get your art business up and running. First up: Crafting your artist proposal. The post The Paperwork Behind Your Art Business [Part I] appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • A Creative Career Coach Outlines a Strategy for the Working Artist

    Marc Zegans coaches artists planning the next move in their art careers. Here, he shares his proven approach for developing your practice as a working artist. The post A Creative Career Coach Outlines a Strategy for the Working Artist appeared first […]

  • How One Artist Uses Instagram to Land Consistent Illustration Gigs

    Illustrator Maria Luque's secret to landing a steady stream of illustration gigs? Just be consistent and post regularly on Instagram. The post How One Artist Uses Instagram to Land Consistent Illustration Gigs appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Artists Who Failed – And Found Success Anyway

    Some of the world's most successful artists weren't always so revered. Meet five artists who failed to develop their art careers during their lifetime. The post Artists Who Failed – And Found Success Anyway appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How Do Online Content Moderation Policies Treat Nudity in Art?

    As Facebook's online content moderation policies come under fire, we review creative platform Orangenius' policy on nudity in art. The post How Do Online Content Moderation Policies Treat Nudity in Art? appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Self Employed? Five Ways To Get Into the Creative Habit

    Self-employed artists don't always leave room for inspiration. Boost productivity and get into the creative habit with these proven strategies. The post Self Employed? Five Ways To Get Into the Creative Habit appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • A Creative in a Corporate Organization: Related Group’s Art Department

    In this ongoing series, we explore the creative roles available in the most unlikely of corporations. Our first installment talks to Patricia Hanna, the Art Director of Related Group. The post A Creative in a Corporate Organization: Related […]