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In August, two reporters for the Common Denominator, a District biweekly, set out to document the roadblock regime recently imposed on the Capitol perimeter. The reporters found themselves part of the story when U.S. Capitol Police questioned the snoopers and, according to the newspaper’s account, confiscated a camera and developed the film.

A few weeks later, a Maryland state trooper responded to a tip that a guy was taking pictures of Chesapeake Bay scenery—with a gas terminal in the background. The man, a Russian diplomat, had to hand over his digital camera and the tape from his videorecorder.

In 2003, at the end of another losing season at Camden Yards, television cameramen set off a security alert after spotting a bearded man taking pictures of the ballpark with a disposable camera. The suspect apparently didn’t care about the action on the field. He left before the game started. Was he a terrorist or just a fickle fan?

Shutterbug freedoms, however, aren’t imperiled everywhere. One morning last month, Lesley Patton, a tourist from rural Hawaii, stood near the entrance of FBI headquarters in a vivid, full-length kaftan. The heavily armed officer standing guard there caught her attention. She took careful aim with her camera, paused a moment to ensure that the officer’s assault rifle was in the frame, and then snapped away. The officer hardly batted an eye. “The key word for Hawaii is ‘aloha,’ which means a loving, trusting relationship,” Patton said. “And you’ve got just the opposite in front of the FBI. So I wanted to take that back with me to share.”

How did Patton slip over the ramparts of Fortress Washington, while the bearded man, the Russian diplomat, and the Common Denominator reporters got caught in the klieg lights? Maybe it’s better to wear bright colors and avoid scenic views.

Whatever the case, the folks who enforce the rules—including legions of rent-a-cops—often won’t disclose what the rules are, or to whom they apply. The upshot: Tourists, residents, and architecture fans learn the guidelines by stumbling over them—by snapping “suspicious” photos, getting too close to sensitive security installations, or somehow just appearing to be a menace.

Because the government won’t print a rulebook, the Washington City Paper has no choice but to fill the void. We sent a team of researchers to probe the boundaries of suspicious behavior in Jersey Barrier City. Where are you free to be curious, and where are you a terrorist unless proven otherwise?

Hereupon, a comprehensive risk-assessment manual for your next downtown visit:

You can…

…snap pictures of the decorative barriers at the 14th Street NW entrance of the Department of Commerce. Pretty pink petunias fill the large concrete planters along the sidewalk. Take your time and document them at your leisure. I did. There wasn’t a security officer in sight. (DM)

You can’t…

…snap pictures of the decorative barriers at the rear of FBI headquarters. The large concrete planters along the E Street NW side feature less appealing flora than at Commerce: tufts of grass. Kind of an “odd” thing to take pictures of, noted FBI Police Officer Eugene Grays, interrupting me about 12 minutes after I pulled my camera out. He took down my name and left me with this gentle warning: “Just don’t break the rules.” So what are the rules? “I can’t tell you that,” he answered. (DM)

You can…

…romp around the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center on a photo safari. On a recent afternoon, the staff manning the Georgia Avenue NW front gate checked to see if we had photo identification. Afterward, we were free to roam. We snapped away, unmolested, at the tree-planter barriers around the hospital for 15 minutes. Then we discovered more interesting subjects to shoot: the old yellow caltrops that could spike the tires of vehicles that breach security. At various times, security personnel saw us documenting the numerous anti-invasion measures around the campus perimeter. But they kept their distance. (DM)

You can also…

…sketch the security posts on Capitol Hill. How do you avoid the attention of busybody Capitol Police as you explore perhaps the District’s most sensitive site? Hide behind an artist’s easel. With pencil and pad, I illustrated three security posts and the officers manning them, even though Capitol Police say any representation of security posts is illegal. (DM)

You can…

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…play ball on the Capitol grounds. As long as you’re playing ball with yourself. Twenty minutes of self-soft-toss on a recent afternoon resulted in little more than a few curious glances from Capitol Police. (DM)

But you can’t…

…play Frisbee on the Capitol grounds. “You can’t do that anywhere on the grounds,” a Capitol Police officer told us. Then he said we couldn’t toss the ol’ bean, either—strange, given that we had been allowed to the week before. Maybe he had a problem with Vulcans. (DM)

You can’t…

…photograph the G Street NW headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—at least, not if you value your life. Or your thumbs. Five minutes after I started shooting pics of the Jersey barriers in front of the building, Officers Willie Liles and Kathy Trilby put a stop to it. They were “special police”—part of a rent-a-cop unit. “It’s illegal to take pictures of government personnel and buildings,” said Liles. Then they radioed in the particulars of my ID and credentials. When I asked what “special police” meant, Liles said, with a twinkle, “It means we can shoot you and it wouldn’t matter.” I asked to speak to the supervisor. As I walked toward the building, flanked by the cops, I jostled for a little more elbow room. “I guess I need my space,” I said. “Your space? What’s your space?” said Liles. “As long as I’m not bending back your thumbs, you’ve got space.” He laughed, so I laughed, too. (BB)

You can…

…play Frisbee outside the White House. I wore a large handlebar mustache. My partner wore a menacing eye patch. The tourists in Lafayette Square were agog, but the security staff couldn’t have cared less. (BB)

You can’t…

…photograph the modernist mothership that is the 7th Street SW headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A security officer named Eric stopped me after I’d snapped a single picture of the building. “I know you’re just a tourist,” he said. “I’m not saying you’re a terrorist. But you might be doing terrorist things.” He told me I could shoot from across the street. When I asked for a more detailed justification than simply “9/11,” Eric called over his supervisor, a thin fellow named Frisby who bore four cell phones and a walkie-talkie. Frisby didn’t talk to me. Instead, he radioed in physical descriptions of myself and Pilar Vergara, the City Paper photographer. He then informed us that Metropolitan Police Department officers were on their way. He didn’t object when we opted to leave. Later, a HUD spokesperson refused to discuss how it handles exterior photography. “Unfortunately, we are not allowed to answer,” she said, “because it is a security risk to release any of our security-detailed information.” (BB)

Nor can you…

…take pictures of HUD from across the street. Following Officer Eric’s advice, I crossed 7th Street SW to the Department of Transportation complex, and started taking pictures of HUD headquarters. But five minutes later, Cherry, a security officer, stopped me. Gesturing toward HUD, she said, “You can do whatever you want from that building, but not from this one.” Why couldn’t I shoot from the DOT premises? “You think they let people take pictures at the Pentagon?” she replied. “This is a high-risk building.” A DOT spokesperson later said it would have been fine if I had secured official permission beforehand. (BB)

You can…

…get the Library of Congress to pose for you! I spent 20 unimpeded minutes photographing the security personnel outside the library’s Jefferson Building—and the movable steel fencing at its entrance. Gregarious security supervisor Lester Prince told me I could take pictures of anything I wanted—including employees, as long as they didn’t object. Theft, not terrorism, was his biggest concern. “I’m unarmed now, but sometimes I have a weapon,” he told me. (BB)

You can’t…

…shoot pictures through the arch of the Navy Yard’s landmark Latrobe Gate. But a courteous young Marine named Phil L. Epps told me pictures of the façade, built in 1806, were fine. The no-images-behind-the-walls rule precedes not just 9/11, but photography itself. “Been that way since a long time ago,” he said. “Since the gate was first built.” (BB)

You can’t…

…photograph the Jersey barriers around the Independence Avenue NW headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA actually seems to have a glut of Jersey barriers—so many, in fact, that one is piled on top of another. It makes for a great shot, if you can get one. “You cannot photograph federal property,” said the security officer. (DM)

You can…

…sketch the security barriers in front of the Washington Monument. With my head covered with a head scarf, I had barely set up my easel and drawing pad at a staff-only checkpoint when one of the security officers, a man calling himself Ali, approached me. At first he said he was Moroccan, but then he revealed that he was actually from Ethiopia. “Can you draw me?” he asked. I explained that I sketched landscapes, not people. But the monument’s security staff seemed determined to support my artistic endeavors. Ali’s colleague checked with her supervisor, then told me sketching was fine. But she was getting ready to close the security gate because it was 4 p.m. “Can you come back tomorrow during the day?” she said, smiling. “You’ll get a better view.” (BB)

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Pilar Vergara.