SF Muni’s Crappy Response to Photographer Harassment

"Sir, You Are Not Allowed To Take Pictures On Muni Property!!"
Sir, You Are Not Allowed to Take Pictures on Muni Property!! by What I’m Seeing.com

A few days ago I blogged about an incident of photographer harassment when SF Muni Fare Inspector #32 threatened my friend Plug1 that if he did not turn over his camera to him that he would be arrested. Subsequent to this incident, many other blogs and Bay Area sites reported on this issue as well including Boing Boing, CBS5’s Eye on Blogs, sfist, fecal face news, sfstreetsblog.org, the San Francisco Appeal, and Muni Diaries. After this incident both Plug1 and I received a response back from Judson True in the Press office of SF Muni when we requested an explanation from SF Muni.

Below is the response from Muni’s office:

“Dear Plug1—

Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your email below.

We have had internal discussions over the past few days on this topic and we have determined that photography is permitted on the Muni system, though our Fare Inspectors were performing as they believed was required of them in order to protect the safety of our customers and employees when they intervened with you and others. They will be re-trained moving forward and I will get our policy posted on our website soon.

If there are further clarifications of our policy in the coming weeks I will let you know.

Thank you for riding Muni.


Judson forwarded this email response to me in response to my request for clarification on this issue. Judson’s response is also published over at Plug1’s blog.

Personally I think that this is a completely unsatisfactory and crappy response from SF Muni. SF Muni never apologizes to Plug1 (instead they try to cleverly apologize for the delay in responding instead in order to make it sort of sound like an apology when it isn’t one — how much do you want to bet that one of their lawyers drafted this one?).

Further, I believe that their statement that their fare inspector was performing as they believed they were required for customer and employee safety is clear and utter bull shit. There was no “safety” issue. Plug1 was no threat to anyone. If Plug1’s description of this encounter is accurate, this was simply the case of a rogue Muni Transit law enforcement agent who didn’t want his photo taken and who decided to use his position as a law enforcement agent to try and intimidate a muni customer and SF citizen. By threatening to arrest Plug1 if he did not provide his camera to the officer he abused his power entrusted to him. This is wrong and should not be tolerated.

Below is my response that I drafted a few hours ago back to Judson True. I also cc:d SF Muni’s Executive Director, Nathaniel Ford, Plug1 as well as a contact of mine at the ACLU.

“Hi Judson,

I’m still a little concerned over this incident. In your email you state: “though our Fare Inspectors were performing as they believed was required of them in order to protect the safety of our customers and employees when they intervened with you and others. ”

Why did they believe that they were required to stop this photography? How was the photographer in this case a threat to either customers or employees? Cameras don’t have bullets, nobody’s physical safety was threatened. The photographer in question was in no way impeding traffic.

Feels to me more like a photographer was bullied by a cop who made up a non-existent “safety” argument after the fact because they didn’t get away with the bullying. This sounds to me like a pretty weak excuse for a law enforcement official to demand to see a camera and a customer’s photos and to threaten arrest, pretty serious things.

While I applaud Muni’s steps for making your open photography policy clearer as well as the retraining involved, I’d still like to know more about what this officer and Muni felt the safety issue was in this case. I would also like to formally again request the identity of of Agent 32. He is a public sworn police officer, I believe that I am entitled to his name as I would be any public police officer involved in a public dispute and incident. I will likely publicize his name and other identifying information about him with regards to this incident if this issue is not resolved satisfactorily.

I think Muni should apologize to Plug1 not just for the delay in responding to the incident but for the incident itself. I think any “safety” issue needs to be clarified, and I think the officer involved ought to be disciplined for abusing his power as a law enforcement agent.

Please respond as soon as possible. I’ll be blogging more on this in the next few hours.”

Photography is not a crime and cops who treat it like it is should be disciplined.

Update: It may be that these agents are not in fact sworn law enforcement. It’s hard for me to tell but based on this Muni job description it appears that they may merely assist sworn law enforcement. I don’t think that this really changes anything in this case, but a distinction nonetheless.

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  1. Clearlight says:

    Yeah, you Muni bitches, do not fuck with photographers. So TH, when are we going to go out and get arrested taking pictures? Seems like it might make for a interesting evening…

  2. Rob Poole says:

    Out of curiosity, are you certain that the the Fare Inspectors for the MUNI system are in fact police officers? Because I was under the impression that fare inspectors are not considered cops at all, and the only authority they actually have is to issue citations for riding without a ticket. If this is the case, then MUNI would be under no obligation to provide you with this man’s information. It would be interesting to see, though, whether they let you continue on thinking that MUNI fare inspectors are cops… a slimeball tactic usually reserved for skip tracers at collection agencies (i.e., implying that you have more authority than you actually do, and letting people draw that conclusion without correcting them).

  3. Since MUNI police may be enforcing ficticious laws and policies, perhaps we need ficticious permits and licenses. I designed a couple of official-looking MUNI and DHS Photography Licenses that we can present if we’re told we’re breaking a law that doesn’t exist!

  4. Well done, TH. I’m glad to see you press the issue a bit more. You know I generally support you stance on issues like this.

    Your update is also important. California designates public officers and peace officers differently. Rail companies have employed uniformed, and sometimes armed, officers for over a century in the US. However, they have not always been considered law enforcement, nor peace officers.

    From reading the job description, it’s important to note that these guys are not real cops of any kind. They are not unlike the “meter-maids” writing parking tickets in any large city. Or non-sworn park rangers employed by local and state governments. When it’s time for a real arrest to occur, they simply call the real cops to do the hard work.

    One way to tell who’s who in situations like this, it helps to know what the punishments are for assaulting them. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE I SUGGEST IT. It’s just a good “litmus” test to see who has what authority.

    Public officers are more like bus drivers, EMT’s, code enforcement officers, etc. We should respect them. We should recognize that they have authority, and provide a public service.

    Yes, they’re uniformed. Yes, they have some authority.

    But they are not cops.

  5. Jman says:

    I’m surprised Muni was so aggressive given the recent Oakland events involving public transit authorities.

    Someone should start a campaign to photo as many public transit authorities as possible.

    What are the laws about resisting arrest against authorities who try and wrongfully assert their power?

  6. Loyd Shutte’s comments in your friend feed are a mystery to me. Heck, I’m NOT a professional photographer, just a amateur with a starter SLR camera, and I’ve been hassled more than once – in fact, that’s how I found your blog; I was searching about what my rights as a photographer on the street are. Now I know to stand up for myself, thankfully.

    It’s amazing how different people’s behavior can be when you have a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera; it makes no sense at all.

  7. Bob Towery says:

    Keep the pressure on Thomas. Hopefully all these dipsh*ts will learn the “actual laws” soon. What ever happened to it’s a free country unless you are a bad guy?

  8. I just wanted to say thank you for such a great post. I’ll be visiting your blog again and adding you to my reader ! Thank you again 🙂

  9. shine says:

    And don’t forget to piss on muhammed!

  10. art says:

    MUNI fare inspectors ARE NOT SWORN OFFICERS and HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO WRITE THAT $75 “fare evasion ticket” if they do, you can get it easily thrown out in court. they can, however call the SFPD and the SFPD will issue a ticket. a ticket that is filled out by a fare inspector but signed by a SFPD officer is not valid either. if you see a fare inspector wearing a jacket with a 7 point star emblasioned on it, he is in fact impersonating a police officer, DEMAND to speak to a SFPD OFFICER when you have an encounter with these people. KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS. MUNI fare inspectors have NO RIGHT TO DEMAND IDENTIFICATION.