Police lead a protester away during a protest inside Philly's Municipal Services Building on June 23, 2020

? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

When Rachel Rodriguez was arrested in June, she was surprised to learn the plainclothes Philadelphia police officers wanted to take her picture.

The 31-year-old had never been arrested before and wasn’t being charged with a crime. She and two dozen others who staged a demonstration at the Municipal Services Building were taken to a South Philadelphia precinct and issued tickets. Their offense: failure to disperse — one of several protest-related charges that have been decriminalized in Philadelphia since the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

But over the last month, protesters arrested and issued these tickets, called Code Violation Notices, have been subjected to a practice typically associated with criminal activity: a mugshot, of sorts, taken with a Poloroid camera.

On June 23, plainclothes officers at the 1st District precinct went even further, according to five people processed there after being removed from MSB.

Police also photographed their tattoos — and then took detailed notes and demanded explanations about the body art. The practice has been used in the past by various law enforcement agencies to build databases around alleged criminal networks and gangs, and goes against the Philadelphia Police Department’s standard procedure for ticket issuance.

Rodriguez, whose tattoos were not visible, reluctantly told the group of all male officers about one on her back.

“I was terrified,” Rodriguez said. “I had this incredible fear that they’re going to strip me in this room.”

She said she saw the officers ask another protester to remove their sweater for a better look at the ink on their arms.

Police reportedly did not tell the detainees why their tattoos were being documented for a civil citation — one that’s no different than a ticket you might get for littering, or putting your trash out too early. Protesters said police issued vague ultimatums, warning of consequences if they didn’t comply.

Sam Terry, 28, who was processed in another group, said he at first resisted the officers’ probing questions about the sleeve of ink on his arm.

“They said, ‘We can take you downtown and throw you in a cell for 11 hours, I’m sure you’ll be able to describe your tattoos then,’” Terry said. “At that point, I felt less strongly, and told them to take a picture of the tattoos.”

Chelsea Chamroeun, 22, said officers repeatedly asked if she had more tattoos that she hadn’t already disclosed. Robin, who requested their last name be withheld, said officers homed in on a drawing of an “anarcho-feminist symbol” that was visible on their leg. “I kept saying, ‘It’s just art, it’s just for fun,’” Robin said, as they snapped the Poloroid.

Police department spokesperson Sekou Kinebrew said officers are not supposed to photograph individual tattoos while issuing CVNs, though headshot photography for anyone in police custody is required for legal purposes. Photographs of CVN recipients are maintained by the Major Crimes Unit, which handles mass protest-related arrests. The photos are not placed in an electronic database and the physical records are destroyed after two years, he said.

The department initially said it couldn’t find any record of the photography taken that day.

After further questioning, Major Crimes Unit Captain John Ryan had the records inspected and discovered Polaroids that documented tattoos on two protesters, according to Kinebrew. The incident — which he described as officers being “overzealous in their documentation” — is now under internal review by commanders.

“As soon as the internal investigation is complete, the tattoo photos will be destroyed,” Kinebrew said.

While police video surveillance at protests is common, organizers say this is a rare case of excessive documentation in police custody — though not the first instance in recent years. Civil rights attorneys and advocates say it amounts to evidence that law enforcement agencies are using the civil citations as a blanket to gather intelligence on protesters that could potentially develop into criminal investigations.

Federal prosecutors used a tattoo to help identify a Philadelphia woman who is accused of torching a police vehicle during the city’s first large protest following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“It is absolutely chilling and it is an absolute abuse of the CVN process,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Tattoo photos raise alarm over citation process

Attorneys and advocates say the CVN process writ large has violated protesters’ First Amendment-protected rights, arguing the act of removing protesters from the streets with ticket citations infringes upon their right to protest.

Facing allegations of civil rights infringement, Mayor Jim Kenney recently waived citation fees issued to more than 750 people between May 30 and June 30, while still defending the validity of the citations.

Tattoos aside, Roper says the PPD’s practice of photographing people in general is excessive. “If people are forthcoming with their names and identification, then there should be no issue,” she said.

She and others also question why police have been transporting large groups to far-flung police stations — or in one case, the decommissioned House of Corrections.

The police department’s own directive states that people given CVNs should be released on the streets whenever possible, and only taken to a precinct “under exceptional circumstances.”

Police officials have said that large demonstrations meet that “exceptional” criteria. And as soon as people are brought into a police facility, Kinebrew said, officers must record their physical state. The PPD takes photos, he said, “to document the condition they are in, and to minimize likelihood of future dispute regarding the identity of the person being cited.”

Kinebrew did not defend the tattoo procedure that occurred after the MSB protest.

“That would have been outside of the scope of what we normally do,” he said, before promising the records would be destroyed after the internal review.

Roper, of the ACLU, said the Philadelphia Police Department regularly shares information with the FBI via the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, a so-called “fusion center” funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Located in South Philly, the center acts as a shared intelligence hub between federal and local law enforcement agencies.

Paul Hetznecker, a civil rights attorney who represents protesters, shared those concerns: “This is all consistent with intelligence gathering.”

After being processed and issued citations on June 23, activists also said they were interviewed by two other plainclothes officers in a separate room. The duo asked questions, they said, that mirror those reportedly asked by FBI agents at other holding centers over the last six weeks:

Were you paid to be here today? What organization are you with? Were you or anyone you know involved in any property damage between May 30 and June 2?

Kinebrew said he wasn’t aware of any cooperation with other agencies on that day. He maintained that any photo records were kept in the Major Crimes Unit headquarters in physical form, not added to any digital database. “It’s not part of criminal intelligence gathering,” he said.

Asked if police investigators from within the PPD or another law enforcement agency would be granted access to those photographs, he said it was possible.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...