ProPublica Photographer: I Was Followed by BP Security and Then Detained by Police

[NOTE: I’m experimenting with ProPublica’s new “steal our stories” republication feature. Forgive me as I continue to try out different online syndication models, using my blog (and you, dear readers) as a test kitchen. This story originally appeared at ProPublica.]

by Lance Rosenfield, Special to ProPublica July 7, 10:37 a.m.

Freelance photographer Lance Rosenfield was working on assignment for ProPublica in Texas City, Texas, last week, when a BP security guard began following him. Rosenfield was later detained by police after taking photos for two ProPublica stories. One revealed that BP2019s Texas City refinery had illegally emitted 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air in April and May. The other reported that the Texas City refinery continues to have serious safety violations five years after an explosion at the plant killed 15 workers.

What follows is Rosenfield2019s account of what happened on Friday night after the police, accompanied by the BP security guard, stopped him at a local gas station.

I parked my car on the shoulder of Hwy 197 near the Texas City sign that is in the pictures, on the south side of town and the refinery. I walked onto the median where the sign is and took the pictures. I walked back to my car and drove a couple of miles to a gas station that is on the way to my hotel. I noticed that what looked like a security truck, which had a light on the top, was following me, although he continued on when I pulled into the Valero gas station. I got out of my car to fill the tank and moments later two Texas City police cars pulled in next to my car, essentially blocking me in, although I wasn’t trying to go anywhere, I was trying to get gas.

The first police officer asked me what I was doing and said he had gotten a report that I was taking pictures near the refinery. I told him I am a photojournalist and had only taken some pictures of a Texas City sign. He asked to see the pictures and I told him I didn’t think I had to show them, legally. Another police officer walked up and again asked to see the pictures. I told him the same thing, but assured him that they were just pictures of the city sign, taken while I was in the public right of way.

He said I could show him the pictures or he could handle this another way, including calling Homeland Security and taking me in. I agreed to show him the pictures on the back of my camera, while he took my driver’s license. Meanwhile, the truck that had been following me showed up, driven by a security guard with a BP patch on his uniform. The first police officer seemed to fade back during all this, but remained present in the background. I asked the second police officer– Officer T. Krietemeyer–for his card, which he gave me.

Officer Krietemeyer took my name, driver’s license, the car license number, my D.O.B., Social Security Number and phone number.

The BP security guard asked for my personal information and I declined because he is a corporate security guard and I had already given it to the police. Then the BP security guard asked Officer Krietemeyer for my information, which he gave him.

I protested and asked on what legal grounds could the police officer share my information with BP? I was never on BP property. They told me it was standard procedure and I told them I didn’t agree with it and didn’t understand what legal authority they had to share that information.

They said that when there is a Homeland Security threat, then BP files a report. I said I wasn’t a Homeland Security threat, that Officer Krietemeyer had already determined that the pictures posed no threat. Also, I was not under arrest, so why was BP getting my information? I asked the BP guard for his information, which he gave me: Gary Stief, BP Security.

They both told me they would call Homeland Security/FBI agent Tom Robison to come down and explain it, as if that were a threat to me. I said I didn’t think that was necessary but Officer Krietemeyer called Mr. Robison anyway and handed me the phone, which I didn’t ask for, but my natural reaction was to take the phone. They had already spoken to Mr. Robison when they arrived; when he got on the phone he asked what my problem is. I told him I didn’t understand why BP was getting my information, but he had it anyway and we were starting to wrap up here. He said, “Oh no you’re not, you’re staying right there until I get there.” This was obviously a scare tactic.

Mr. Robison arrived several minutes later and asked what my problem was. His demeanor was aggressive and antagonistic. I repeated myself, in a respectful manner. He aggressively explained that a refinery like this is a terrorist target and any time people take pictures of it, they have to investigate.

He asked who I was working for. I said I’m a freelance photojournalist working on assignment for ProPublica. He asked for verification of that so I showed him the letter from (ProPublica senior editor) Susan White. Officer Krietemeyer took down the information. Mr. Robison tried to dig at what the article was about, and I stayed mostly vague because I’m not the writer and I didn’t see the significance anyway. Eventually he asked if it’s about BP and I said yes, which seemed to make him angrier.

I then felt like Mr. Robison and Mr. Stief, the BP guard, started harassing me, primarily by keeping me there and talking to me in an aggressive and antagonistic manner, and relating what I had done to terrorist activity, ignoring what had actually happened. This went on for some time. I stayed calm and polite and on point.

Mr. Robison twice asked Officer Krietemeyer if had he reviewed the pictures carefully and concluded there was no threat, to which Officer Krietemeyer said yes. Mr. Robison seemed to be shaky with adrenaline; he was clearly worked up.

Stief said he was ready to go so the group broke up quickly.

I shook all three men’s hands.

I’m guessing the whole thing lasted 20 to 30 minutes.

Be the platform, use the platform, syndicate the platfom

A lot of talk about platforms for news these days, no?

A sampling:

Joey Baker at CoPress defines one of the many things that “newspaper platform” could mean to a local news site:

“…taking lessons from Gawker, Slashdot and the New York Times, and aggregating everything. If there’s a story online that’s relevant to your community, link to it. Who cares if you wrote it or not? The idea is to be the source of news. If people know to just come to you first for their information, it doesn’t matter if they eventually click off your site. They will keep coming back to you for more.”

John A. Byrne posts the 2008 “User Engagement Report Card” for BusinessWeek, probably the most impressive magazine site I’ve seen, getting into blogs and what we now call social media early in the game:

(5) Five Questions For…: Spearheaded by BusinessWeek’s Innovation team, this feature encourages readers to submit questions that our staff will ask leading corporate executives and public officials. We select five questions from those submitted by readers and pose them to such CEOs as Bob Nardelli of Chrysler, Tim Brown of the design firm IDEO, Aetna’s Ron Williams and Best Buy’s incoming CEO, Brian Dunn.” [links are John’s, not mine.]

Zach Seward from NiemanLab talked with a developer at the TimesOpen conference who said this about what the NYT could do with its increasingly awe-inspiring package of software for producing online news and APIs to access its stories and data:

“A company like The New York Times, which has a lot of resources and assets on the user-experience and interaction front and also on the content front, could leverage those resources and allow small, local newspapers, small, local media companies that don’t have the same level of interaction and are just playing catch-up but have really good access to content because they’re geographically local. The New York Times could potentially provide or a company like The New York Times could potentially provide a sort of a white-label, maybe hosted solution where, you know, the smaller news outlets could bring their content in.” [More transcribed plus video here.]

I’ve made it a habit to poke friends and peers at the NYT and Washington Post from time to time over the past couple years, asking them when they’ll give those awesome tools to other papers in the chain, or when they’ll push out syndicated infographics for the Web as part of an online wire service the way they might with print.  They usually smile and mumble something about Facebook or embeddable widgets and wander away.

But, the truth is that most of these tools are probably (?) built internally for internal use, and make the most sense when they’re matched up with who-knows-what-sort-of-crazy frontend system for stories and data that pushes content and files around the network inside their buildings.

It’s much, much, much easier to produce the data and open that up, than to get into the business of software development for everyone.

But man, wouldn’t it be cool?  That’s a platform a small news site could jump up and down on.

[via folks like @jayrosen_nyu and @cnewvine, although I might have spotted them from @johnabyrne, @joeybaker, @copress, and in my RSS reader as well. But you should follow all of those people.]

[Full disclosure: I agreed to join the board of CoPress awhile back, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the New York Times so much, and a buddy of mine is an editor at BusinessWeek.]