Do not photograph 3701 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA

Officer Malara

This is Officer Malara, Arlington County Police Department, working a private detail commissioned by the occupants of 3701 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA.

Officer Malara stopped to take information from a friend and I on the grounds that he observed us taking photographs in a “high security area.” And by “taking photographs in a ‘high security area'” I mean being in possession of a camera while walking down the street opposite several blocks of non-descript office buildings, less than a block from the Virginia Square-GMU Metro station.

Unfortunately, that we weren’t breaking any law, nor were we disobeying any posted warning became a moot point once we were asked for identification (unlike public photography, failure to comply with a request for identification by a police officer is grounds for detention). So, we provided the information that was requested of us, were asked to delete any photographs that we had taken of the facility at 3701 (the photo above was the first that I’d taken), and off we went.

Could we have plead our case on the scene? Sure. Would it have done any good? Doubtful. Once you’ve been stopped and asked for identification, your options are more or less limited to compliance or a free ride to the county jail. Being harassed for photography in public sucks, but it sucks a lot less than being booked. More importantly, I had plans to meet family and friends for lunch at the Old Brogue, and wasn’t about to cancel on account of this nonsense.

So, what to do? I chose to file a complaint (PDF) with the Arlington County Police Internal Affairs Section (IAS). The following were submitted to IAS on 11 May 07:

A summary of my requests:

  • A bunch of administrative information (I.e., chain of command, badge numbers, etc.).
  • A copy of any related report filed within the Arlington County Police Department containing my name or identifying information.
  • A copy of the policy or code section granting officers the authority to question and/or request information from individuals engaged in photography.
  • A comprehensive list of locations within Arlington County that 1) may not be photographed and 2) display no indicators to this effect.

On 11 Jun 07, following several discussions with my investigator, I received the following in response:

A summary of the outcome:

  • Aside from the flurry of paperwork generated by my complaint, I have no “record” in Arlington County.
  • My information was provided to the security official at this installation.
  • I now have the name and phone number of said official, who will soon be in possession of his very own FOIA request.
  • These types of policies are, in theory, under review per the chief’s directive.
  • I now have a copy of the Arlington County “Terrorism Intelligence and Prevention” policy, which grants police the right to stop persons in possession of dangerous things like cameras and binoculars.
  • As expected, there exists no comprehensive list of locations within Arlington County that 1) may not be photographed and 2) display no indicators to this effect.

I lack the motivation to address the points in these responses one-by-one. But suffice it to say that, while I agree with the intent of this policy, I believe the implementation to be flawed. The intent, of course, is to protect . . . something. The implementation, on the other hand, does nothing more than perpetuate fear, and impose a hardship on law-abiding citizens.

These policies, containing vague terminology and lists of items that might at some point be used by someone to do something bad, exist so that the police can find just cause to stop people who legitimately give them the creeps. And to the extent that one of these policies might one day prevent someone from doing something really bad, I’m fine with them. But, as the chief points out in his response, meeting one of the criteria on such a list does not a suspicious person make. Officers are urged to “exercise appropriate discretion.” And in this case, I find it very hard to believe that exercise of appropriate discretion would yield that two young men, casually walking down a busy public street taking photographs, who happen to be opposite some unmarked but supposedly high security facility, qualify as suspicious.

Further, setting aside the issue of officer discretion, the most disturbing aspect of this incident is the simple fact that we had no way of knowing that we were acting in a manner that might have been so much as considered suspicious. If the subject in question is devoid of any type of external marking or warning sign, one should have no reason to suspect that it cannot be photographed (or approached while in possession of photographic equipment). And it follows that one should certainly have no reason to suspect that photographing such a subject might land one’s name on a list, or in a database. Reasonable, law-abiding people tend to avoid these types of things when it can be helped. Thus, my request for a list of locations within Arlington County that are unmarked, but at which photography is either prohibited or discouraged according to some (public or private) policy. Of course, such a list does not exist. Catch-22.

The absurdity of this type of situation is clear: We’re being penalized for violating poorly documented, questionably legal (an argument that I’m certainly unqualified to make) and arbitrarily enforced policies. We’re not being told what is expected of us. And to the extent that we are able, we need to take a stand. We need to know our rights, document the fact that we’ve been wronged, and work for change. And if we fail to enact change, the very least that we can do is make it such a pain in the ass to harass photographers that those who would otherwise jump at the chance will think twice, if for no other reason than to avoid a mountain of paperwork and an internal affairs investigation.

UPDATE1: For those who have expressed interest, I’ve compiled of list of sites where further discussion on this topic can be found. If I’m missing one (or more), please submit the link in the comments over there, as opposed to here.

UPDATE2: See my comment below regarding guidelines for discussion–they are few, and should not be unexpected. No racial slurs. No name-calling. No wishing other participants harm. And please don’t re-submit antagonizing comments because you think you’re being censored–I’m approving anything that doesn’t meet the criteria that I’ve just listed, as quickly as I’m able. Some type of site-wide, formal discussion policy to come . . .

UPDATE3: There’s some dispute in the comments as to the state of “stop and identify” laws in Virginia and Arlington County. It’s too much to cover in an update, so I’ve written more on the subject here.

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80 thoughts on “Do not photograph 3701 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA

  1. I didn’t read all the points made here because they seemed to turn into personal attacks at one point. I would like to point out a few things here:
    1. if you are taking pictures of a government facility that is of high security regardless of it being marked as such, you should be questioned at the very least. And said facility shouldn’t need to be marked, because it is in fact – a high security facility (marking it LOWERS its security, part of its security is that it is relatively unknown in that area, despite the publishing of the address via the web)
    2. asking for a list of places you can’t take pictures is like asking for a list of all the secure places in the area along with the addresses. They wouldn’t be very secure if you could request this information that easily. This list could, as easily as you avoid it, become a “target” list for someone who wishes to do a lot of damage. I’m glad that lists like this do not exist.
    3. The “genius of the and” to use Jim Collins’ idea, doesn’t apply here. you can either have security or large-scale personal freedom. You do not get to complain about someone stopping you while taking a picture in front of the DARPA building and then within the same breath turn around and talk about how easily security was breached and the things around us were blown up, decimated, etc etc.. (note, I’m not saying you said these things, I’m merely pointing out the double-edge to freedom vs. security) So – make your choice. Do you wish to be occasionally hassled in a somewhat routine manner, or do you wish to have freedom to do what you wish but at the potential cost of your life? I personally am willing to sacrifice safety for personal freedom, but that’s not a call I can make on a “universal” scale. Sometimes, we can’t just do what we want to, and we have to be willing to accept that. The officer wasn’t cruel to you, he didn’t take your camera (unlike some military and secret service protocols), he simply told you where you stood and what he’d like you to do. For you to make a “freedom of speach” issue out of this seems a bit idealistic. I did notice that people mentioned the Oklahoma city bombing, I would go further and mention specific high security military installations (try to get close to air force 1 and see what happens – they don’t even question you BEFORE they shoot….). Or go find the local CIA facility around you and take some pictures and see if anyone questions you, or go to certain areas on a military base and see what happens, or go to a place that manufactures aerospace and military equipment and complain when they don’t let you snap a picture. (they often collect cellphones at the door now – cameras are a no go) Sometimes things are off limits.
    The real question I have – why is a high security building just sitting in a commercial area – I’m surprised it isn’t in the country somewhere surrounded by a laser grid and robotic attack dogs or some such nonsense…

  2. Did you place an inquiry with the police department about what policies might apply to your incident, before you filed a complaint?
    If not, I think that would have been advisable unless you are simply wanting to stir the pot.
    Don’t expect any cop to be exactly right in every circumstance because cops unfortunately are human. I haven’t met any yet who set aside a certain portion of their time just to be a jerk.
    If your incident is all you have to complain about you have had a very sheltered life.

  3. Its kinda funny….this is a DARPA building, according to a search on the Internet. So this is a web site on the Internet about not photographing the very building where the people who first really created the Internet currently reside. Its like they are hunkered down in there, scared to their last wits because this whole Internet thing has gotten out of hand, become a global beast unable to be contained by the masters that created it.Awesome.

  4. Pingback: eclecticAesthetic » Blog Archive » More on Photo Rules

  5. Pingback: Keir Graff » Blog Archive » The Rules? They’re For Us to Know and For You to Find Out

  6. Some concerns I have in all of this is that some of you seem all too willing to give up your civil liberties in order to maintain “freedom” (or rather, an illusion of freedom) and rhetoric being used wherein those that disagree with the “greatness” of the U.S. and her domestic policies should “go back to where you came from” because they don’t simply accept or agree with the consensus or any other U.S. policy. I believe it is one of our own Founding Fathers who said something to the effect of “those that give up their liberty for security deserve neither.” I do believe that this post or any of the actions leading up to or resulting from this post are NOT a waste of time. It is correct that liberty is not free and we, the people, must continually fight for it and alert others when it is threatened (I didn’t say taken away because by that time it is too late). We must continually let our elected officials and those in charge know that we will not allow our civil liberties to be threatened. If it means such “time wasting” actions such as those taken in this blog, so be it. If it means speaking against such policies and laws with our written and spoken words, or with votes, so be it. What makes the U.S. great is the civil liberties afforded by the the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the due process amendments. What makes the U.S. greater is those of us willing to fight tooth and nail to preserve those rights, whether in the military or amongst the citizenry against our foreign and DOMESTIC enemies. Now, a cop doing his job and enforcing laws that ask us not to photograph secure areas is not an enemy but a vague policy or law that restricts a photographer and violates the 1st Amendment and those that create and uphold this policy are our enemies. If one goes to a courthouse, there are signs posted everywhere restricting photography and cell phone use for security and other concerns and a person violating these signs should be reprimanded or even detained if necessary. When there there are no signs posted anywhere in a public area, there should be and is an implicit assumption that photography or any kind of free speech activity including cell phone use is not restricted. This is my country for better or for worse, so, telling me to go back where I came from because I don’t care for my liberties being threatened in exchange for security means nothing but telling me that I am wrong for fighting for that which is rightfully mine, namely the rights and privileges afforded by the Constitution tells me that those that would implicitly try and shut the rest of us up by asking us to leave are not true Americans or patriotic in in the least.

  7. I’m pretty sure I know the place you took a photo of. My friend knew you couldn’t take pictures of it though, weird.

  8. I would go further and mention specific high security military installations (try to get close to air force 1 and see what happens – they don’t even question you BEFORE they shoot….). Or go find the local CIA facility around you and take some pictures and see if anyone questions you, or go to certain areas on a military base and see what happens, or go to a place that manufactures aerospace and military equipment and complain when they don’t let you snap a picture.

    I’m sorry, but you seem unable to understand the issue. He was on a public sidewalk!!! How does that relate to sneaking around in a top secret facility?? Are you trolling are really just not getting it?

    You people all act as if this is the first time the country has been threatened by enemies. Every generation had its boogieman that the people in power used to erode our rights. And anytime someone complains about it someone trots out the tired excuse of freedom versus security. They used that excuse to lock up Asian-Americans during WW2. We all look back and wonder how they could be so irrational and then we are doing similar things today. In 30 years we’ll look back and tell our kids about “terrorist hysteria” of the 00s.

  9. from the original article it sounds like he wasn’t even taking pictures of the building, he just had his camera on him.

    I understand the need to have heightened security at some facilities, and I also understand why limiting or forbidding photography could be a part of that. Note that this doesn’t mean that I agree that such photography is necessarily a security threat, or that limiting photography at all will make a facility more secure in all instances, just that I can see why such a policy could be considered necessary. For example, I can see why you might want to forbid photography of the flight line at an Air Force base but I don’t see what good it would do to forbid photography of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    But I digress….

    I think the point of forbidding photography isn’t that it really does much to increase security in and of itself (anyone who wants to take pictures in order to do harm will get the pictures covertly anyway if they really need them), but rather it provides the means for security personnel to interact with people that they feel are suspicious. You probably can’t justify demanding identification from every weirdo who walks past the DARPA building in Arlington. But you can justify it if they’re breaking some regulation, such as taking pictures where it is forbidden.

    This doesn’t mean that I agree with the policy in all instances, especially not this one, just that it makes pretty good sense.

    Unfortunately, as with EVERY “policy”, there will be people who overreact or take it two far. Should the OP have been bothered when he wasn’t even taking pictures? No. The cop was obviously being a bit overzealous. (I don’t ascribe to malice that which I can ascribe to stupidity, incompetence, or one simply being a jerk in general).

    The problem is that, in the US culture of litigation, you HAVE to treat everyone the same. If an arab male with a “I heart Osama” t-shirt was taking pictures of the facility, would the cop have been wrong to investigate it? I am, obviously, being a bit hyperbolic here. Picture, instead, someone acting legitimately suspicious while taking photos. Not just taking them, but doing things that we would all look at and say “hmm…that guy seems up to something.” Do we investigate him a bit further? I think so. So what do we do when that guy gets an attorney and sues the .gov because the cops let the two white guys wearing “Bush-Cheney 2004″ t-shirts walk right on by even though they were also possibly taking pictures?

    I don’t know if it was a case of an overzealous officer or of an attempt to apply the policy equally to everyone to avoid problems. But I absolutely do not see this as a purposefult erosion of anyone’s rights and chalk it up 100% to beaurocratic BS. I have worked for and around government for quite a while, and rarely do I see things that are legitimate attempts to deny someone their rights. 9 times out of 10 it’s a case of .gov employees or policy makers trying to legitimize their job or stay out of trouble.

    By being polite and cooperating, involving the medai, and writing the appropriate letters and following up with management the OP is doing exactly what he needs to do: bring the situation to the attention of those in power. They have absolutely NO idea of how their policies are being carried out and how they are affecting the average citizen. Unless those citizens inform them, the only information they get is from their own people, who have a vested interest in making themselves look good.

    It’s not facism, it’s typical .gov dysfunction. As I said, I never ascribe anything to malice if I can ascribe it to incompetence.

  10. The officer does not have the legal right to make an arrest. See the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Hibel v. The Sixth Judicial Court of Nevada, and Terry v. Ohio. If the individual is asked to identify himself, and he chooses to do so, simply stating his name is enough. He is not required to produce documentation. If he chooses to refuse, he is within his rights to do so, UNLESS the state has a specific “stop and identify” statute in place. Currently , only 24 states have them. Virginia is NOT one of them. Hope this helps.

  11. Look at what had unfolded here: if the officer didn’t stop to confiscate the picture, the court hearing would’ve never taken place and all of these people wouldn’t be so curious about this un-photographic landmark.

    All this did was raise everyone’s attention to a place that the gov’t was trying to keep secret.

  12. Hey Ron Summers, Arlington has a “Fail to Identify” code, and now VA has one too. The Arlington statute states that a person MUST provide name, Date of Birth, and address. And this information must be verified by ACPD in some way. So, yeah, you do HAVE to give the police your information. And now VA has a similar code, although I do not know what you have to give to satisfy that one.

  13. Any “Fail to Identify” code is a law that breaks the law and thereby nullifies it’s self from the start. Go read the laws the land was founded on.

  14. Wow…some astounding comments here. Sorry, people, but the old “get a life” argument isn’t going to work here. Your idea of what is a “valuable” use of time is irrelevant to this. If the author of this site chose to dedicate his time to this and you don’t like that…well, deal with it.

    Anyway, here is the thing that I think jumped out at me the most in reading the response you received:

    From the Chief’s response:

    “…this immediate area is a government installation which hires off-duty police officers..”

    followed by

    “On the date in question, Detective Malara was working this assignment…”

    Okay, so this guy who stopped and IDed you for breaking…no laws, only meeting ONE criteria from some vague “suspicious activity” list…wasn’t even on duty? Yet was wearing his uniforming and obviously trying to get YOU to think he was a cop? I dunno much about police work, I’ll admit, but this really rubs me wrong. Can cops just switch into cop-mode anytime they want during off-duty time, or did you basically get tricked into giving up your ID and SSID to someone who wasn’t even on duty and was basically working as a security guard?

    I’m also seeing some weak arguments here along the lines of “What rights did you lose, whimp? None, you didn’t go to jail!”. That may be true, but the author of this page was still hassled and made to feel that he was doing something illegal by someone who appeared to be an on-duty police officer. I realize this didn’t “take away” any of his rights, but honestly where do we draw the line? If he’d been arrested? If he’d been tasered? You can call me over-dramatic and wishy-washy all you want, but I’m just not okay with the idea of someone being hassled by the cops for NOT breaking the law. I hate to make a slippery slope argument because I know technically it’s a fallacy, but nevertheless part of me still wonders what will happen if we let even the supposed “small” things like this slide…at the very least it’s our job as citizen’s to do our best to keep tabs on things like this. I don’t believe these silly “hush up and don’t worry about it, they’re catchin bad-guys!” arguments are going to help the situation in this country.

  15. Keith,

    Congratulations on handling the encounter with the Police officer (off-duty, mind) and the out-of-bounds comments here in a patient and rational manner. The world needs more of that.

    And I would like to thank you for taking the time to investigate this matter more thoroughly, and bring it to the attention of the authorities. Many people do not realize that it is through vague, loosely-worded, not-well-documented “restrictions” that most repressive govts. work. Is there a law against XYZ? No, or course not! But there is a general policy which advises against xzy and allows room for discretionary action.

    And that is how the population is kept in line – via a generalized fear of taking action that “could get us in trouble – but I’m not sure.”

    It seems to me that in all but very few cases, if there is legitimate cause for concern, the govt, (who employs really good lawyers and speech-writers) should be able to adequately explain why. If not, I question its value.

    Or maybe I shouldn’t. After all, lots of people in Germany had clean consciences for years after WWII because they made sure they never asked, and the govt. made sure they never told. Ignorance might be bliss, after all.

  16. “(unlike public photography, failure to comply with a request for identification by a police officer is grounds for detention)”

    There is no law on the books stating that you are required by law to carry identification with you in public while on foot. This is not grounds for detention except under very unusual circumstances. Unlike most Europeans, you have civil rights that the government is hard pressed to violate if you know them well and exercise them.

  17. Good job pressing the county on this nonsense. I would have demanded that the officer explain why he needed ID or arrest me and that would have ended it. Of course, I’m a lawywer so I know more about the complete lack of basis the officer had in this situation.

    There is no security concern with someone photographing this building. Anyone casing the security of particular building could rent an apartment in the large building across the street and do so unobserved.

  18. Pingback: KWM » Stop and identify law in the D.C. metro area

  19. The irony of these two statements is just too good:

    “The absurdity of this type of situation is clear: We’re being penalized for violating poorly documented, questionably legal (an argument that I’m certainly unqualified to make) and arbitrarily enforced policies.”

    “UPDATE2: See my comment below regarding guidelines for discussion–they are few, and should not be unexpected. No racial slurs. No name-calling. No wishing other participants harm. And please don’t re-submit antagonizing comments because you think you’re being censored–I’m approving anything that doesn’t meet the criteria that I’ve just listed, as quickly as I’m able. Some type of site-wide, formal discussion policy to come . . .”

    Look….things transition. A cop saw something out of the ordinary, checked it out, and you went on your way because you behaved reasonably. What more do you want really? You talked to a cop for a minute biiiiig deal.

    You’re own words in “Update2″ ring strikingly similar to the official response you got from the chief. Mr Pot, I have a kettle for you to meet.

  20. Pingback: If told to delete photos . . . — KWM

  21. you know what the police are controlling this county and basically have a key to the city to do whatever the hell they want and to all those talking about terrorism and all that bs you probly are the cops, look their is no terror and that sh@$ its all a set up to install this observation watch on the public because then they can monitor whta we are doing, hence the cameras everywhere now, and the new smart chip thing it s all going to hell

  22. Post 911 has brought a host of problems for security and enforcement that has allowed the terror of extremists to win the war. Our personal freedoms and rights have never at any point come under such attack since the Magna Carta. As citizens we need to exercise our rights but more importantly also lobby our elected representatives to allow for greater disclosure of what they have on each of us individually. This is the only safeguard we know have to make sure the wrong information is not on file against us somewhere. Enforcement at all levels takes information daily from sources for which we have no idea. We need to be able to know at any given time what is on file. Good on you for at least complaining many don’t and the fine line between tyranny and freedom can be slim if the person for whom unknown allegations may be on file is you!

  23. You can find this building on Google Street view. Doesn’t that sort of make this a moot point?

    Seriously, punch it in. Its right there.

  24. Hi – I am a community activist and serve the City of Miami in several roles including as Chair of the Homeland Defense/Neighborhood Improvement Bond Oversight Board. We oversee all of the capital improvements in the city including police and fire.

    I am also a journalist and a member of the South Florida Internation Press Club – at our last luncheon we hosted a speaker from the Society of professional journalist, South Florida Chapter President Julie Kay, who educated us about what is and what is not covered by the First Amendment.

    It certainly is under assault today!

    Anyway – thought you might like to see the building you were trying to photograph – it’s on wikipedia!

  25. Pingback: Secret Buildings You May Not Photograph : Federal Jack

  26. Yep, “visited” that building today on Google Earth, including a good look at the police car parked in front of it. I can even see the face of the cop in the car. With Google Earth and Street View, why would a terrorist need to risk detection by photographing it in person? Their “security” is worthless.

  27. Pingback: Secret Buildings You May Not Photograph « Aude Sapere

  28. Anybody look into whether the Arlington Police Department and their officers being hired to do security outside of their jobs are breaking the law by working private security and using their uniforms, badges, guns, police cars, etc. as ways to dupe citizens into thinking they are on official police business?

    The article Governments and Rent-A-Cops Harass Photographers suggests that they may have broken a few sections of US Civil Rights law.

    I’m uncomfortable that cops can effectively be acting as private security guards and yet use the color of law to push people around like they did to Mr. McCammon.

  29. After reading through these comments I can’t believe how many people are dismissive of their rights being trampled upon.

    I commend the blog author for investigating this matter further. If more people actually took the time to question and not just accept whatever is handed to them (in this case, nothing substantial enough to warrant you being stopped for – eyeroll here – snapping a few pics!) the world would be a far better place.

    As they say, and I agree, most people are sheep. The American Revolutionary War, the Constitution, our Bill of Rights, people were pissed off enough to make it happen. Imagine if they followed such sage advice like “Get a life.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatsby were a cop himself. Enjoy your leisure time at the beach while the rest of us ensure your right to do so.

  30. some of you ppl will walk into the fema camps eyes wide open mouthing the same old crap ‘i didnt do anything soi i have nothing to fear’ while the founding fathers spin in their graves over what your giving away

    wake up Sheeple! take back the country before you all get herded into the fema camps

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