View Full Version : Confronted By The Police!

06-25-2004, 01:44 AM
Note: I am posting this message in the main forum because I believe it will interest railroad photographers everywhere. This message originally appeared as a sub-reply in Eastern U.S. Railroad Discussion. --D.S.


This morning I was confronted by both local and railroad police while taking pictures of trains on Metro North's Harlem Line.

It happened on MacQuesten Parkway, a street that parallels the train tracks a block from where I live in Mt. Vernon, New York. My camera was balanced atop a chainlink fence in an awkward attempt to get a clean shot of a Plasser American railcar and a ballast spreader that were stopped on the Harlem Line's new third track. Ironically, my hands were already over my head when I was confronted.

As I stood there on tip toes trying to keep my balance against the fence while framing the shot using the LCD, I suddenly heard a voice behind me asking: "What are you doing, sir?" I turned around and saw two police cars and two uniformed Mt. Vernon policemen walking towards me. They had rolled up on me silently. The sight of the flashing lights and their state of readiness was alarming. "Taking pictures of trains" I replied. The officer must've figured as much, and asked, "Do you think that's a good idea, given the times we're living in?"

"Well," I answered, " there's some debate about that. I like to think of myself as another pair of watchful eyes who, in the pursuit of his hobby also serves to discourage people with bad intentions. Just by being here taking pictures, I would think any criminals would have second thoughts about doing anything right here, right now, seeing how I'm standing here taking pictures."

The officers thought about this. I think my point was not lost on them. They seemed like decent guys. "You have to understand, we're not trying to hassle you," explained one of the officers. "What you're doing looks suspicious to some people. A secretary in that office across the street called in a complaint about you. Can we see your I.D.? We also need to see the pictures you took."

Just then, three more police cars pulled up, lights flashing. A detective got out of one. He was with MTA police. He was friendly. He chatted it up with me while the first officer who spoke to me ran my I.D. through the computer and wrote out a report. The detective told me that while my intentions might be harmless, photographs of the railroad could compromise national security by revealing the railroad's infrastructure.

The detective was very cordial. I think he found me an oddly entertaining source of amusement. A grown man taking pictures of trains in the middle of a weekday morning! He asked me why I wasn't at work, and where I lived. He asked me how long I've been photographing trains. I told him not for very long. I just bought my camera, I explained, about a month ago. I told him I've always been a railfan, ever since I was a kid. I'm what they call a F.R.N.

He smiled. "F*#kin' rail nut! We know all about guys like you!" he said with a laugh.

"You know, I'm not on railroad property," I said. "This is a public street, and the track construction project I'm photographing has been widely publicized by the railroad itself. In fact, some workers were posing for me just the other day, with their shovels and such."

He said, "That may be so. But we still have to check out all complaints like this. That lady who called us thought you were acting suspiciously. There have been serious attacks on trains in Europe, and it's entirely possible similar attacks could happen here. I'm sure you understand our point-of-view."

Five police cars in total had now showed up. I felt quite embarrassed, standing there, chubby, bald, and the subject of such scrutiny. But I think it was pretty plain I was exactly what I said I was.

There were more questions about my life and identity. Finally, I offered to just erase my photos, if that would satisfy them. They said that that would be best thing. The detective said he couldn't make me erase them, but it would speed up the resolution of this confrontation if I would. My guess is that he was considering confiscating my new camera.

So I erased my images. Or I erased one picture, anyway. See, my LCD says "Deleting Frames" in the plural when it's erasing, even though in fact it might be erasing only one image. Unfortunately, it was the great photo I'd just taken of the Plasser American railcar that got erased. Why couldn't it have been the photo of that pile of old railroad ties?

This incident makes me feel kind of sad. I finally get a half-decent digital camera, and my new hobby is being banned. Furthermore, my hobby brands me as some kind of a fool. If we F.R.N.'s are not terrorists, we're laughable geeks. And need it be said too that, since I'm a novice photographer, most of my photos are rejected by railpictures.net anyway?

This was the third time I've been warned about taking pictures of trains in as many weeks, and it was the first warning that actually involved the police. The other two warnings I got came from railroad employees who were "just looking out for me."

Once headquarters radioed back that my I.D. checked out okay and the officer had completed his report, I was told I was "free to go." It seemed this was the only freedom I had: The freedom to stop doing what I was enjoying and go away.

Who's really winning this fight against those who "stand against freedom?"

David Sommer

06-25-2004, 03:55 AM
I would have found a polite way to tell them to "eat sh*t and die." I've played a part in the war on terror (I've got the medals to prove it) and I can damn well take pictures of trains from public property if I want. Just my opinion though, but we've been fighting for freedom, not for a new Gestapo...[/angry at knee-jerk reactions]

06-25-2004, 06:36 AM
I read somewhere that the biggest problem with the Gestapo in Nazi Germany wasn't them going out looking for people as much as it was 'concerned' citizens reporting suspicious activity THEN getting them to act on it. What's that they say about people who forget history?

What the hell are we supposed to be doing? Sitting in the house staring at the wall? This new age of paranoia got old fast as far as I'm concerned. Vigilance is one thing, but it ain't what we got now.

I've been questioned and expect I'll be questioned again. No problem with that to a point. But when they start asking to delete pictures, surrender your film, or threatening to confiscate your camera-that's getting ridiculous. As Ween said "I would have found a polite way to tell them to "eat sh*t and die."

Also angry at knee-jerk reactions.

06-25-2004, 03:28 PM
Your report does seem like overkill to me. But, as a cop of 15 years I try to see both sides. I don't know the locations you are talking about, but I'm guessing part New York City. If so, keep in mind recent history. If any city has a right to be over protective, it is New York.

I work in a small town in WV. There is a CSX main running right through the center of town and a wye where the Coal River sub meets the main. While CSX hauls mostly coal here, they also serve several chemical plants in this area, so we, the police, have been asked to keep an eye open.

I am the only railfan/modelrailroader on my department, so my reaction to someone taking photos of trains may be less intense than other cops. We will run license plates, especially out of state plates, of folks near the tracks. If they are on CSX property we will let them know they need to move off of it. If they refuse or go back on CSX property after we ask them to move, we will issue a ticket for trespassing. I have never arrested a railfan, and don't know of any officer in this area who has. Drunks on the tracks, yes, railfans no! And yes, we do get calls from concerned citizens all the time about "suspicious" people around the railroad. We are required to check each and every call, even if it seems silly.
However, I can't think of any grounds for which I could take a camera, film or make someone erase images taken from "public property" of something in "plain view."

The bottom line is common sense should prevail on both sides of the issue. Railfans need to stay off railroad property. Don't climb fences, structures, signals or anything else to get a photo (unless you have written permission). For goodness sakes, STAY OFF THE TRACKS! Don't give the railroads any more reason to dislike railfans. If you are approached by the police or a railroad detective, be upfront and tell them what you are doing. Yeah, some will think you are a nut, but as long as you are a nut that is not breaking the law, they will leave you alone.
Most cops can figure out you are not a threat and will go about their way. Sure some cops feel the need to be a**holes about such things, but then again, I have met some really rude railfans.
Railfans who think the railroads are there just for their enjoyment and think anything not welded to the rail is a free for the taking, is a bigger reason for cops and railroads distrust than 9-11.

Good luck in your railfanning, if you can't get photos in NY, stop by my little town. You can take all the photos you want and we can even tell you where the good spots are.

Jim Butler
St. Albans PD WV

06-25-2004, 06:58 PM
You should print out and become familiar with this:

06-27-2004, 04:04 PM
Thanks to all for their support!

Interestingly enough, I sent my little story to the local paper, and was contacted in response by a transportation columnist who wants to interview me and also wants me to pose for a photo at the fence where I was confronted.

What are some good points I should make when I'm interviewed? I figure my goal should be to justify why we should be able to take pictures of trains without being confronted or told to stop. Any suggestions?

Dave S.

06-30-2004, 02:41 AM
If you get stopped for taking pictures of Amtrak trains, direct them toward this website.


07-06-2004, 04:05 PM
As someone who has been confronted by police, shop owners, busy bodies and all the rest, this irritates the bejesus out of me. I'm a news photographer down here in the south, so normally I get it from John Q. The police are usually the ones that come to my defense by stating that if I'm on public prperty, I am free to shoot whatever I want.

I also have had a run in or two with my still camera, but none remotely rises to the level of absurdity that yours did. While none of us can imagine how we might react under similiar circumstances, I only wish you had not offered to delete your images. It may have been easier at the moment, but it sets a bad precedent.

This is not a slam on you, just an observation. Good luck with the news paper.

Joe H.

07-06-2004, 06:57 PM
Thanks to those who have responded to me publicly and privately. I received good advice from lawyers, railroad employees, journalists, and law enforcement personnel.

However I must say I am a bit surprised more readers did not voice an opinion about the view some law enforcement officials appear to have towards our hobby. It must be that, in other parts of the USA, railroad photographers are not being confronted like I have been.

The fact is, I have been confronted two more times since that first incident. Each confrontation occurred at a different place, both on and off railroad property. Each time I was told to stop taking pictures and go away, even though my I.D. checked out fine. And just for clarification, when I was on railroad property, I was in a public area, meaning a regular station platform.

Somewhat unhappy about this, I sent my story to the local paper. Today a reporter interviewed me at the fence by the tracks where I was first confronted. A staff photographer took pictures. I am very grateful the paper took an interest in my story. I think it's fair to say that in comparison with other issues the world faces these days the survival of amateur railroad photography doesn't hold much importance. But it is important to me. Luckily someone at the paper took an interest.

The local police chief just happened to call the reporter's cell phone at the end of the interview. She had been waiting to hear from him, and the timing couldn't have been better. They talked at length about my incident and balancing the nation's response towards the prevention of terrorism.

After their conversation ended, the reporter told me the police chief told her that if I choose to take pictures of trains I will continue to be confronted, but that I will be permitted to continue taking pictures once it is established I pose no threat.

I'm okay with that.

David Sommer
Mount Vernon, New York

07-06-2004, 10:33 PM
the police chief told her that if I choose to take pictures of trains I will continue to be confronted, but that I would be permitted to continue taking pictures once it is established that I pose no threat.

Sure. I'm glad the police chief is willing to expend his manpower like that, especially knowing it's you who is out there taking pictures. You need to work out a system with the police before you go out which establishes a color of the day. That way, when someone calls the police to report someone taking photos, they can ask, "Does the suspect have on a green 'X'?" That way they know it's you when they respond 'yes.'

07-06-2004, 10:44 PM
Mr. Ween, you are too funny! BTW, you take great photos!

Your idea actually is very clever. Like the signal flags they use on navy ships!

Well, it may be preposterous in some ways but hopefully they will recognize me after a while. At least the they're going to let me do my thing, at least from public bridges, parks, and roads. That was my goal, just simply to be allowed to take photos after being questioned if that's necessary. They were questioning me and making me go away.

Where does all this leave established railfan photo spots like at Horseshoe Bend in Altoona, PA and Rochelle, IL? Should they be closed in the interest of national security?

I read today the Empire Builder was delayed for six hours in Portage, WI after the authorities received bomb threats against it. All passengers were detrained and searched. All luggage was searched. Some fireworks were found. What do you suppose this delay cost Amtrak and the passengers? I hope this doesn't go on and on. Ridership has been increasing. This kind of stuff will drive passengers away. I think people making these kinds of threats should be systematically sought and severly punished, even if it was just some sort of kid's prank.

The reporter also told me I won't be able to take any photos from station platforms anymore. The repoter said Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Police told her they will not permit any type of photography whatsoever anywhere on railroad property from now on.

This is the MTA Police's official position, even though the MTA Board of Directors hasn't yet even voted whether or not to approve the proposed ban. The MTA police said they will be enforcing the ban anyway under the advisement of the New York City Police Department in order to maintain the highest possible level of security for the railroad.

The reporter also told me the MTA is expected to approve the proposed ban on photography when it does vote on the matter, and once it is policy it likely will be in effect for a very long time. I guess that means even after the war is over.

Word has it that Boston's MBTA has already approved a ban on photography in the subways. Anyone know if it's true?

David Sommer
Mt. Vernon, New York

(PS - How do you guys place a little photo or insignia by your names?)

07-07-2004, 03:14 AM
Mr. Ween, you are too funny! BTW, you take great photos!

Thanks for the kudos, and if you want, just send me $1000 so I can get a Digital Rebel and I'll take some really great photos! :lol:

How do you guys place a little photo or insignia by your names?

Go all the way to the top of the page and click on Profile. Once you're on the profile page, scroll all the way to the bottom and you'll see a thing called the Avatar Control Panel. You should be able to get it from there!

07-07-2004, 03:31 AM
I'm trying to win a digital camera from TRAINS. The theme of this year's photo contest is railroaders at work. Would that include pictures of railroad police officers confronting me?

Look for my new little avatar picture, coming soon. Thanks!


07-08-2004, 04:16 AM
Link: http://www.thejournalnews.com/newsroom/070704/b0107goingplaces.html

The link above leads to the Journal-News article about my confrontations with the police concerning railroad photography. The article appeared in this morning's edition (July 7). The newspaper article itself has a picture of me down by the tracks "at the scene" of the first confrontation. The online version is text only.

I gotta say in retrospect that I kinda wish I didn't describe myself as a balding rail nut!

David Sommer