This article is about one of those universal inevitabilities that surrounds recording in the wild, dealing with the police. Sooner or later, we all have our encounters with them. Before I go further, let me lay out the persepective with which you should read this. I am not a lawyer. This article should not be construed as legal advice. What follows is a set of common sense precautions to keep in mind should you be surprised by a police visit. Also, I live in the U.S.A., so some of the advice in this article is based on what I know of the laws and procedures here. Some of this may not necessarily be appropriate in another country. In the best of circumstances when police are involved, they’ll actually work with you. This can be common on film or television productions, but chances are good that we’ll rarely have that kind of support in the field. The best time to deal with the police is before you start recording. Calling up the local police/sheriff can prevent their sudden appearance if someone in the area you’re staking out calls and reports you. As most field recordists are opportunistic by nature…not willing to pass up a cool sound that we suddenly stumble across…that may not always be an option. That’s the situation we’re preparing for.
Let’s start out with the big one.
Police are just like the rest of the population. The ratio of friendly to jerk is probably equal in both pools of people. If you give a cop a hard time, you’re simply giving them a reason to make your life hell. Be friendly and ready to explain what each piece of your gear is for, and what you’re doing with it. [Anything with a “pistol grip” is immediately suspicious these days.] This piece of advice is not limited to the police alone. If some random civilian walks up and asks what you’re doing, or is obviously guarded/concerned about what you’re doing, a short friendly conversation may eliminate a potential call to the police. Even if someone is overly aggressive and threatening to call the police, or has already, keep your cool. The exception, of course, is if you feel threatened by the person who has approached you. In that case, maybe you should be the one to call the cops.
Should you be recording in an area where there are security guards, they’re who will decide if the police are called. Again, be polite. In fact, I’d say take this one step further. Within reason, treat the security guards as if they actually were police officers. If they do call police, you can be sure they’ll speak with them when they arrive. Don’t give them cause to think you’re an asshole. That will definitely color the conversation in a way that does not help you.
Since we’re talking about interacting with other people…
Don’t Give Your ID to Anyone Other Than an Officer With a Badge
People can ask for proof of who you are. That’s perfectly within reason. If you have business cards, feel free to give those out. If they ask for your actual ID, you’re under no obligation to give it to them. There may be cases where it makes sense to hand your ID over to a security guard, but that’s a call that you’ll have to make. As for regular civilians like ourselves, forget it. They don’t need it. Worse, if you give it to them, who’s to say they’ll give it back? If they threaten to call the cops unless you do, let them. They may do it regardless of whether or not you give it to them. It may be they’re just fishing for a way to keep you there until the cops arrive. Fine. Hang out. Continue to be polite, do your best to stay calm, and wait for the police to show up. You’ll probably be better off once they do.
Don’t Try to Evade the Police
If you know the police have been called, or you see them walking towards you, just stay put. They’ll only come looking for you if you leave, and they’ll likely ask you more questions than they would have in the first place. There’s not much more to say about this. So, I’ll just move on to the next bit.
To the best of your ability…
Know the Laws of Where You Plan to Record
Obviously, you’re less likely to be arrested if you haven’t broken the law. This is where contacts prior to your recordings can really help you out. If the area is sparsely populated, call the police or sheriff before you go out recording. If it’s a big city, there’s probably a film office. As an example…I live near Washington, DC. A quick call to the film office here a few years ago let me find out that I need a permit to set up a tripod or stand with anything that looks like professional gear (video, audio or otherwise). On the other hand, I can wander around any public space and record as much as I want…if I’m working hand-held. Now, unless I’ve contact the police ahead of time, there’s still a possibilty that they’ll show up somewhere while I’m recording. Hell, that may happen even if I’ve called in. At least I know that I’m within my legal rights standing around on the Washington Mall with a stereo rig in hand.
Have a Local Contact
If you’re going to record in a location that’s long distance from where you live, it’s really important to have at least one local contact that can verify who you are. This doesn’t have to be someone you know very well. Find someone to talk to before you show up in town. Talk to them about what you’re doing, and ask about any interesting locations in the area with interesting sonic characteristics. Find out if they’re willing to help you make connections at places you want to record. You can even call and talk to someone at the local government to do that. Is there a film office? Call that. Establish an acquaintance, then reach out one last time before you arrive (or at least before you set up anywhere with your gear). Thank them for talking to you the last time, and let them know where you’re going and how their information has helped you. You’ll probably have made a good impression just by doing so (people like being thanked), and you now have a “paper trail” that you can give to the police if they show up. Someone, somewhere in this town/city/county, knows who you are and can give the history of your conversations. Instant credibility.
Most of this is all common sense
Sometimes that eludes us though. Keep these points in mind, and use your brain. That combination should, for the most part, keep you out of trouble. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was by my parents, of all people, “Read the situation and think before you speak.” It had no connection to what I would eventually wind up doing professionally, but it applies across so many areas of life. This potential situation is no exception.
Disagree with anything I’ve said? Have some idea of your own? Please post them in the comments section below.
Now, for a little bit of levity, let’s take a look at Chris Rock’s “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.” I’ll think you’ll see some parallels. ;)