Some folks at the Bexar County Sheriff's Office have a very different view of the law than I do, and this "accidental interview" should demonstrate those differences rather clearly. We've all heard the myths about Texas lawmen and their, errr.. improvisational legislative interpretations. I'm sure one Lieutenant Phillip Dreyer doesn't take much shame in this myth - in fact, he seems to be doing his best to live up to that stereotype. But I'm getting ahead of myself, kids ... first, despite several weeks passing since the incident, my notes were taken that evening. So, I believe the below to be a very accurate and fair encapsulation. On the night of February 5, 2007, while walking around San Antonio to get some night shots, I noted the rather cool way one of the canals was being lit on East Nueva Street, so decided to take some pictures of it. A few frames later, a man approached out of the corner of my eye (in plain clothes) and said,
"Can I see some ID?"
My instinctive response, before I saw what he was holding, was "no."
As he shouted, "I better or you're goin' t' jaail!", I noticed he was displaying in his hand some sort of police identification.
Finding him unusually aggressive, noting his weapon and ID, and hearing his threat of arrest if I did not produce identification, I decided to show him my license.
"Are you taking pictures for personal use or a company?"
"Well, it depends.. probably personal, but I suppose if someone wants to run them, they can... why?"
(getting in my face) "You ever hear of September the 11th?"
"Uhhh, yeah, but I'm not sure what it has to do with this."
"You are between two buildings, housin' communications equipment."
"OK... and I am in a public place, taking pictures of things in plain view. There's nothing secret or sensitive here. I mean, if I had criminal intent, do you really think I'd be out here in the open like this taking photos?"
"You'd be surprised."
"I would? Have you ever caught such a person?"
As he began a call on his cell phone (my license in hand) and talked (or pretended to talk) with someone, I noticed a TV news crew setting up about 50 meters away. He ended his call shortly thereafter and our conversation continued.
"How do I know you're not going to give these pictures to someone [to do harm]?"
"Well, I suppose you don't - but how did you plan to ascertain that by checking my identification?"
(shouting again) "LOOK - you give me any lip, and you're goin' t' jaail!"
I was really beginning to feel physically intimidated by this guy and sensed that I could only "push" him so far until he would decide to arrest me on a bullshit charge or two for "sassing" him. He absolutely seemed like the sort of law-man who was not above exaggerating and bending the rules to teach a smart-talkin' Yank a lesson.
Seemingly ordering me out of the view of the camera crew, he said, "stand over there!" and gestured toward the canal and rear of the buildings. I did not, as I had actually begun to see the news crew as a sort of rescue chute in case things went further south. I was seriously getting nervous about this guy, and knew if something nastier began to unfold, I could get it on the 11 o'clock news.
"Look, I'm not trying to be difficult, I'm standing up for my right to take pictures without being shaken down like this."
Repeating himself, "there's two buildings here, housin' communications equipment..."
"Yes, you said that.. but what would be IN the pictures, out here, that would pose some kind of threat if someone saw it? And what about them [pointing toward camera crew]? They're taking pictures."
He nearly lept out of his shoes and got right up into my face, just a few inches away, this time jabbing his finger at my chest. He shouted,
"DON'T TELL ME HOW TO DO MY JOB, YOU UNDERSTAND? I WILL TAKE YOU T' JAAAIL!!"
Noting he was approximately a hair's breadth from assaulting me without any kind of provocation - not so much as a raised voice from me - I said,
I actually noticed him checking himself, the way a person does who's gone through anger management classes. He backed off slightly, cocked his head a little as if a bug had flown past his face, and said (a bit less loudly than the last sentence but no less enraged),
"Don't tell me how to do my job."
"I am not telling you how to do your job. I was telling you that they, too, are taking pictures."
"That's telling me how to do my job."
"No, it isn't. Look, am I being detained?"
"Then I'd like my ID back and I'm going to leave."
He put my license back into my hand, and pointed off into the distance behind me - still so close to me that when he did so his arm extended over my shoulder - and yelled "GO!"
And that's where my encounter with Lieutenant Phillip Dreyer ended. What upsets me is not just the ignorance and discourtesy of one Bexar County Sheriff's officer. I realize my encounter sits ridiculously low on the Richter Scale of injustices. But it is one more drop in the ocean of shit Americans have gleefully sipped up in the name of "security".
Several weeks later, two things are bugging me about this. First, when can we shed the misguided idea that taking photographs is somehow suspicious activity? This is absurd on its face. Can we dispense of this silly notion with zero basis in reality? It's really sad when talented photographers are writing about how to stay "below police radar" when practicing their art.
The second thing that bothers me about this is that any sane, intelligent person knows that Lieutenant Dreyer, in his heart, had no honest suspicion about my behavior; he merely saw an opportunity to exercise his power. He did so illegally - and such incidents are happening to people all the time - and at a much higher cost than I paid.
Yet, few of us seem to care - and I find myself wondering how far we will allow such madness to go.