Los Angeles County Sheriff's Commander: Officers Trained That "Potential Terrorist" Activity Such as Photography Merits Pat-Down Searches

1:50pm | Captain Steven M. Roller of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has told Long Beach Post that it is standard practice to detain and pat down photographers for "potential terrorist" activity such as photographing a courthouse.

Roller also said that in such a case it is acceptable to conduct a pat-down search prior to attempting to find out why the individual is taking photographs —that, in fact, this is part of officer training:

I'm going to make sure, just real quick, I'm going to do a non-invasive pat-down, okay? And now I'm sure this guy doesn't have a weapon. Now I can kind of relax a bit and do the second part of this thing and find out why he's taking pictures of the courthouse, okay? … If you ever read anything about training material, they always tell you after you make sure there's no secreted weapons, then you always want to keep an eye on the hands. … But I know certainly that if I would have said, 'Can I see some identification?' that would have been too late. Because if I had said, 'Can I see some identification?' and you're going to reach back and get your wallet out of your back pocket, that's too late to suddenly say, 'Oh, maybe I need to pat you down to make sure you don't have a weapon,' because you're already going for the back pocket. That would have been too late.

Because officers are "harped on [that] Homeland Security says a courthouse is a hardened target," Roller said that when an officer is alerted to the possibility that someone is taking pictures of a courthouse, "in the back of his head he's going, 'Oh, potential terrorist taking pictures of the courthouse,' okay? When I deal with a potential terrorist, first thing I gotta do is make sure there's no weapons. How do I do that? I'm gonna pat him down, for officer safety."

Roller, who identifies himself as the "unit commander" of the Long Beach County Courthouse, made his comments in late August while discussing the Sheriff's Department's investigation into my June 2 detainment and pat-down search for suspicion of photographing the courthouse. Of that specific incident, Roller said that, based on the facts as he knows them, he approves of the pat-down search that was conducted: "They respond to information they receive that there's a potential terrorist across the street taking pictures, okay? They go over there, they contact him, they pat him down to make sure he [doesn't have] weapons, for their safety. Nothing wrong with that."

Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, says that these practices by the Sheriff's Department are illegal.

"The fact that [the Sheriff's Department] might be following their training on counter-terrorism doesn't give them license to violate the Constitution," Bibring says. "Under the Fourth Amendment, police can only detain a person they have reason to believe is involved in criminal activity, and can only perform a pat-down on a person they have reason to believe is armed and dangerous. It's ridiculous to think that merely taking photographs of a courthouse would give the police good reason to think you were involved in terrorism, much less or armed and dangerous. If deputies want to know more about why someone is taking pictures, they can always just walk up and ask. But they can't detain or frisk the person without reason to believe there's criminal activity involved."

Roller also confirmed that the aesthetics of the photographic subject is a criterion in determining whether a photographer's activity is suspicious. "Look, I gotta tell you, [the current Long Beach] courthouse is not that attractive," he said. "Now, the new one may be different; but the old one, it's not attractive, okay? So, does that person [photographing the old courthouse] fit into the potential terrorist kind of thing? Well, let's go check it out."

This consideration echoes the policy outlined in Los Angeles Police Department Special Order No. 11, which lists among Suspicious Activity to be reported by officers, "Takes pictures … with no apparent esthetic value."

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