Following the example of BLM, photographing police at events has become a popular activity. Here’s some background information so you know what you’re looking at.
Photographing police is legal. The first amendment guarantees the right to photograph police.
MPD’s photo policy (PDF) was created in 2013 and allows the public to photograph police operations, if they are located in a place where they have a legal right to be, as long as they don’t interfere with police operations.
This policy has often been violated. Paul Garner was arrested twice while photographing police, and Fergus Nolan and Ceylon Mooney were also arrested while photographing. All cases were dismissed. The most common bogus charges are Disorderly Conduct and Blocking a Highway or Passageway.
None of the paramilitary units wear body cams.
Paramiltary Police Unit Recognition.
There are several paramilitary units which deploy at events. They each have different behaviors, so recognizing which units are present has a value.
The first thing to notice is how the units carry their gear. Some use a regular police utility belt, others wear a “tactical vest” over their bulletproof vests.
The tactical vest is worn by the TACT unit and the OCU. The utility belt is worn by regular uniformed cops, regular MGU members and the Canine Squad. The position of the sidearm holster is the giveaway. With a tactical vest, the sidearm holster hangs from the vest and is strapped to the thigh.
This is MPD’s SWAT team. They wear tactical vests over their ballistic vests, and regulation paratrooper boots. They can be recognized by the coiled cobra shoulder patches.
There are twenty or so officers in the unit. They drive black Suburbans with civilian tags, hidden blue lights and heavily tinted windows. The Suburbans have large lock boxes for weapons and equipment storage, and no external police identification.
TACT were seen at a 2017 Sons of Confederacy event and an April 2017 MLK march, where they deployed a sniper team to protect a speaker who had had a death threat. In the Sons event, a handful of protesters turned up without notice to protest hundreds of Sons of the Confederacy at the Forrest statue, and we believe that the TACT unit was the quickest deployable unit. TACT carry a wide range of full-auto and specialized weapons and explosives.
The Multi-Agency Gang Unit (MGU).
The MGU has two identifiable types. Regular MGU is always in uniform, while the Organized Crime Unit (OCU) usually work in civilian clothes and confiscated civilian vehicles. OCU wears uniforms at political events and seem to be tasked differently.
The junior regular MGU officers wear paramilitary gear with a regular police utility belt, civilian shoes (usually sneakers) and a bulletproof vest with a MGU patch on the belly.
When they appear at events, they are usually tasked the same as uniformed officers, with traffic control duties etc.
They usually drive obvious but unmarked police cars, either white Dodge Chargers or black or white SUVs. The vehicles have police plates, and interior cages, front bumpers with sirens, moveable spotlight and hidden, interior blue lights. None of their cars have police livery.
The Organized Crime Unit.
The OCU is a separate unit within the Multi-Agency Gang Unit. They usually operate in civilian clothes and drive confiscated civilian cars with no identifiable exterior police equipment. Their main role is to execute search warrants and do mass arrests of suspected gang members, so they are fluent in physical repression.
OCU are trouble. MPD brass deploys then when they plan to get hands-on with demonstrators. They recently deployed on April 3rd 2018 as a snatch squad, in response to a major intelligence defeat inflicted by activists, when they arrested individuals previously identified as protest leaders, and other political targets like Manuel Duran, who was probably identified as a target by Federal law enforcement.
They also turned up at the January 2017 Valero protests, where they cut protesters loose from concrete-filled drums.
OCU cops, when in uniform, can be recognized by their ballistic vests and formal police boots. As they are routinely in plain clothes, their police badges are carried in various ways, such as neck chains or clipped to various parts of the uniform. A few may have MGU patches, and they often wear face masks or bandannas to hide their identities.
Presence of OCU at an event usually means that arrests are planned, so photographers should focus on this group.
Regular uniformed MPD
They are always at events, and have arrested people at Graceland, Overton Park and Health Sciences Park. Sometimes, as at the Forrest statue, they have been ordered via radio by MPD brass to intervene, at other times (Overton Park) their actions were the result of individual police over-reaction. Most of the time they do traffic duties, but they, like all MPD cops, are half-trained and feral and can act capriciously.
In general, when MPD uniforms arrive at an event, they enter a waiting period when a supervisor is summoned, usually a major. The supervisor, on taking control of a scene, will often issue an ultimatum to protesters. Until the scene supervisor arrives, uniformed cops are not likely to instigate violence.
Until early 2018, when the Parade Ordinance was amended by City Council, the Police Director was specifically authorized to use undercover cops at events. As this policy contravened the 1978 Consent Decree, the authorization for undercovers was removed from the current Parade Ordinance.
We know that, prior to the ordinance change, an undercover officer photographed in 2017 was identified in uniform in a 2018 photo. But MPD is no longer authorized to use undercover cops at events, so anyone suspicious (by an obvious gun bulge or suspicious activity) should be photographed. We can attempt to match those photos with others we have in our archives.
In particular, the undercover RTCC (Real Time Crime Center) surveillance van is almost always present at events. It has historically been operated by two RTCC members, clad in dockers and gray polo shirts. The rear compartment of the van does not access the cab, so the operators have to exit the cab and enter the surveillance compartment by one of the two doors. They also exit the surveillance compartment to mount and adjust the antennae and exterior camera dome.
Photos of these undercover cops would prove violation of the 1978 Consent Decree and also the new Parade Ordinance and would be valuable intel.
The K9 unit wear paramiltary gear, regular police utility belt and a shoulder patch featuring a dog head. And there’ll usually be a dog around. We don’t usually see then at events. If there, it will probably be to provide probable cause for a search.
Drug sniffing dogs indicate a find by sitting down and pointing their nose at what they found. If the dog barks, it means nothing. Watch the dog’s behavior and call out any fakery by the handlers.
If police engage protesters, marshals should call out to everyone nearby to get their phones out and start making video. The knowledge that they are being filmed is the best inhibitor of police violence.
As mentioned above, if OCU are present, then MPD brass is planning on creating trouble and the general risk profile of the event rises.
Regular cops and regular MGU cops are still cops and must be treated as feral. They have often waded into events and done arrests.
We recommend the following for filming police.
- Work in groups, with a primary photographer and a lookout to monitor for trouble.
- Use a camera with a telephoto lens, if available. This allows for filming at a greater distance. This goes better with a tripod, so turn up early and pick your spot.
- Read the MPD photo guidelines and know your rights. If accosted, inform the officers that you are filming police in accordance with the first amendment and MPD regulations.
- White privilege applies. As always, African Americans are more likely to be arrested or harassed by police. Police are racist.
- Women are less likely to be accosted or hassled by police than men. Police are sexist.
Make up media badges for photographers and wear them in lanyards around necks. This might give police pause when contemplating arrests.
If Arrested or Detained.
Don’t resist, and you can avoid answering questions by asking for an attorney. Check your rights before you go and have a jail buddy who will bail you out if arrested. Once you have requested an attorney, popo can only ask your name and can’t require you to produce ID unless you are driving. They can’t even ask you how to spell your name, ask your address or any other questions.
There have been volunteer pro-bono attorneys and bail assistance available for all protesters arrested since 2016 so don’t fight arrests and instead soak up police manpower in searching you and transporting you from the scene.