You'd think I'd know better by now but I have to admit I'm still regularly surprised by the arbitrary and unlawful exercise of police power by those paid to serve and protect but more often than not just want to intimidate and control.
I was walking on the University of Arizona campus that morning when I came upon a large U.S. Army recruiting station that had been setup the night before.
Undoubtedly looking for an opportunity to take advantage of the unsuspecting crowds that would be gathering on campus for the football game later that day, the University ROTC arranged for Army recruiters to setup shop along the campus mall in an area normally reserved for tailgate parties, barbecues, and other sporting event festivities. After all, what better way for military recruiters to meet their quotas than to infiltrate University campuses and wait for drunken revelers to accidently stumble into their lair?
In this case, the Army recruiting station consisted of an 18 wheeler and two trailers transformed into a simulated Army base complete with military propaganda in a hard to miss, larger than life, graphical format:
At first glance, I gave the spectacle no more attention than it deserved. As I looked around however, I noticed a KVOA cameraman videotaping the scene:
In addition to the cameraman, two police vehicles were also present but no police officers were visible at that time:
(the second police cruiser is located on
the other side of the Army display)
Wondering why a local news station and two police vehicles were on-scene that early in the morning, my curiosity rose and I took a closer look at the Army station in front of me.
What I hadn't noticed on first glance was that someone had added their own propaganda over that of the Army's by tagging the base with political graffiti:
As I began taking photographs, I made sure to keep my distance from the recruiting station. I stayed on the public sidewalks wherever possible and further back from the scene than the KVOA cameraman.
After making one pass around the recruiting station, I was in the process of finishing up and moving on when a police officer, who had been sitting in his patrol car, suddenly jumped out and began yelling at me to stop taking photos:
As the officer moved quickly towards me and continued demanding that I stop taking photographs, I complied by switching my camera into video mode and recording the ensuing encounter. While viewing the 10MB wmv video file, keep in mind the following points:
A transcript of my interaction with Officer Bermudez follows. Keep in mind that Bermudez had already been yelling at me as he approached by the time I placed my camera in video mode and began recording the encounter:
- Me: "What's your name?"
- PO: "Bermudez"
- Me: "Bermudez?"
- PO: "Yes"
- Me: "What's your badge number?"
- PO: "0613"
- Me: "OK, do you have a problem with that?"
- PO: "I'm just asking...that's why I'm asking sir"
- Me: "OK, that's fine"
- PO: "I don't need the attitude"
- Me: "Neither do I"
- PO: "OK, well no see this is government property sir"
- Me: "Yes, what about it. It's in a public..."
- PO: "OK, It's in a public area yes. I'm just asking why you're taking pictures, what's your interest in it"
- Me: "I'm not interested in talking to you about it"
- PO: "OK, then I'm going to ask you to go ahead and please leave the area because this is government property."
- Me: "No"
- PO: "You've already taken pictures"
- Me: "No, this is a public space and I have every right to be here...and you are being recorded right now."
At this point, Officer Bermudez grabbed his radio and called for backup while walking away from me. While Bermudez talked on his radio, I recorded his patrol car's license plate and vehicle number.
Bermudez returned a short time later and requested my name while asking me to put down the camera:
- PO: "Sir, may I get your name please?"
- Me: "What for?"
- PO: "Can I ask you to put the camera down please?"
- Me: "No sir"
After I made it clear I wasn't going to put down my camera, Bermudez walked behind me and said nothing further while waiting for backup. When the second officer came into view from the other side of the mall, Bermudez walked towards him and a discussion between the two took place by the patrol car.
After several minutes talking, the second officer finally shrugged, turned around and walked back towards the Army station. Bermudez followed and acted as if he had forgotten what had just transpired between us. This was somewhat surprising to me, but certainly welcome, given his attitude up to that point.
Shortly thereafter, both officers began talking with an Army ROTC representative who had by that time arrived on-scene:
After the officers finished talking with the ROTC representative, the KVOA cameraman approached the Army rep and conducted his own interview. I left the area at about this time.
After all was said and done, I was pretty irked by the entire encounter.
Officer Bermudez's actions were arbitrary and capricious in nature. He attempted to unlawfully limit my access to a public space along with my right to photograph objects within the public sphere - seemingly conditioning the exercise of these rights on an explanation requiring his personal approval. He engaged in these arbitrary enforcement actions knowing full well a KVOA cameraman was engaging in similar activity. Nonetheless, it was clear Bermudez had no intention of confronting this private-sector news cameraman who was taking photographs and video of the same government property I was.
At all times, I was within my rights to be in the area. Given the circumstances, I had no legal obligation to explain myself or my business to Officer Bermudez. Nor did I need his consent or permission to remain in the area and observe the scene for as long as I deemed necessary or desirable.
If Officer Bermudez had approached me in a non-threatening manner, explained what was going on and made reasonable inquiries regarding my interest in the scene, I would have been more than willing to talk with him. This wasn't the case however and I don't take kindly to public servants overstepping their legitimate authority by attempting to intimidate individuals into complying with requests having no basis in law.
Officer Bermudez may have been under the mistaken impression that I had a legal obligation to provide my name to him upon request. The governing Arizona statute can be found at ARS 13-2412 which states:
13-2412. Refusing to provide truthful name when lawfully detained; classification
A. It is unlawful for a person, after being advised that the person's refusal to answer is unlawful, to fail or refuse to state the person's true full name on request of a peace officer who has lawfully detained the person based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. A person detained under this section shall state the person's true full name, but shall not be compelled to answer any other inquiry of a peace officer.
Given the clear wording of the statute, the scenario in question lacked two fundamental elements necessary to have had any legal effect on me.
First and foremost, Bermudez had no reasonable suspicion to believe I had committed, was committing or was about to commit a crime. Standing in a public space and observing my surroundings with the aid of commonly used and easily accessible electronic equipment is not a crime. Similarly, I was in no way interfering with lawful police duties or investigations related to the vandalized Army station. As such, Bermudez had no legal basis to detain me.
Secondly, even if Bermudez did have reasonable suspicion (for the sake of argument), he would still have had to explicitly articulate to me that I was being lawfully detained and that refusal to provide my name to him would be a violation of the law.
Since Bermudez never articulated this to me and never had reasonable suspicion to detain me, I had no obligation to identify myself to him. I also had no legal obligation under any circumstances to explain why I was taking photographs.
While Officer Bermudez was out of line during this encounter, he at least had the good sense to not escalate it further without consulting with another officer first. In this case, the second officer had a better grasp of the situation and de-escalated it by letting things ride.
Since I had no desire to interact with any police officers to begin with, I'm thankful the second officer sized up the situation in a reasonable manner and just walked away. It shows that some officers are indeed capable of exercising good judgment.
Bermudez's actions on the other hand show why it's important for individuals to record their interactions with police. Video cameras help to remove ambiguity and put police officers on notice that their actions may be subject to review in a court of law or at the very least, the court of public opinion.
There have been far too many incidents of police harassment and abuse from across the country as of late. Recording equipment in the hands of average Americans are slowly but surely providing a semblance of accountability that has been missing from the public sphere for far too long.
On a final note, I checked KVOA's website along with the Daily Wildcat for any mention of the vandalism associated with the Army station. I found no reference on either website despite the fact the Wildcat has a section dedicated to daily campus police reports while KVOA News 4 had actually conducted an interview with the Army ROTC spokesperson.
While it's possible I missed the KVOA coverage, it makes me wonder whether or not the Army tried to keep the incident under wraps by asking KVOA to downplay the story and the UAPD to not file an incident report. While this is just speculation on my part, you'd nonetheless think that a story regarding the vandalism of a military recruiting station on a University campus & investigated by local police just before a big football game would have popped up somewhere else besides this blog....
If anyone happens across such a story, I would appreciate a link in the comments section below.
Comments are closed for this post.
Welcome to Checkpoint USA's blog. Here you'll find general information and discussions regarding growing threats to our right to privacy & travel.
While I refer to court cases along with state and federal law frequently in this blog, nothing written here should be construed as legal advice. I am not an attorney. Rather, I'm someone concerned about the growing disregard for individual rights present at all levels of government.
My conclusions are my own based upon personal experience and research. The law is made purposely complex however and varies significantly from place to place and circumstance to circumstance.
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