On The Fargo Park Lurker: Does The Public Have A Right Not To Be Creeped Out?

Here’s a strange story.

A man was noticed to be lurking near a city park/pool in Fargo, taking pictures and generally acting suspicious. The man who noticed him, Jed Felix, instigated a confrontation asking the unidentified lurker what he was doing.

“He said he was just taking pictures and that he was an artist,” Felix told the Fargo Forum. “He said it’s completely legal.”

On that the lurker was right. There is nothing illegal about hanging around a public park taking photographs. But when you’re hanging around a park full of kids, some of whom are in bathing suits, and you’re taking pictures of them you’re going to creep some people out.

Thus, when Felix wrote about the situation on Facebook, people were outraged. The man Felix confronted was interviewed by the police, and he has now been banned from some Fargo park district property (splash pads and pools I’m told).

Some posting on social media claim that they’ve seen him previously behaving similarly in city parks, though who knows if those reports are accurate.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]As a parent I can say that I would be alarmed if some stranger were hanging around a park taking photographs of my kids, but as a citizen what I see here is a man who broke no laws yet has become the target of online vigilantism and a ban from some public property.[/mks_pullquote]

But, is this right? As a parent I can say that I would be alarmed if some stranger were hanging around a park taking photographs of my kids, but as a citizen what I see here is a man who broke no laws yet has become the target of online vigilantism and a ban from some public property.

I wish we knew more about why this man was at the park taking photographs. To be sure, the man is doing himself no favors with his cryptic answers to questions about his behavior and his seemingly cavalier attitude about it. But the fact remains that he broke no laws, and while it’s understandable that people don’t want strangers conducting surveillance on them or their kids, it is also true that nobody has a right to privacy in a public park.

I have some experience with this topic.

For almost a decade I worked as a private investigator, and surveillance was a big part of my job. Most of my work was related to insurance fraud – people scamming insurance companies by pretending to be injured, etc. – and I probably spent anywhere from 30 to 50 hours per week surveilling people. A big challenge in doing that job was lurking, observing, and documenting while not coming off as an enormous creep like this guy.

An online poll of Fargo Forum readers shows overwhelming support for the anonymous lurker's banishment from city park property.

An online poll of Fargo Forum readers shows overwhelming support for the anonymous lurker’s banishment from city park property.

We had some rules in place to protect us, though. For one thing, before I would go out on a case I would notify law enforcement of the areas I’d be working in so that they could contact me if anyone called me in as suspicious. For another, we tried to avoid working near parks or schools or anywhere else children were present, and when it couldn’t be avoided we operated using extreme caution. But a few times I still got called out by people who were, understandably, concerned about my presence, and that put me in an awkward position.

Because the cases I was working were confidential, as you might imagine, and I could hardly tell the people confronting me that I was watching so-and-so across the park who is playing volleyball even though he’s collecting disability checks for a back injury.

I did have credentials, however, and I tried to be as transparent with those questioning me as I could. Still, I shudder to think what would have happened in the social media age had someone decided to post photos of me and my vehicle/license plate numbers on Facebook or Twitter.

I’d hate to have been put in the position our anonymous lurker is now in.

Which brings me to my point: Are we jumping to conclusions here? Have we judged this man too quickly? Have we wounded his reputation without any evidence that he intended anyone any harm?

I wish the public was a little more interested in understanding what this guy was doing, and why he was doing it, before we brand him as a pervert or worse. But judging from the public’s reaction to this incident – an online poll of Fargo Forum readers showed overwhelming support for the banishment – most seem comfortable with jumping to conclusions.

Maybe it’ll turn out that this guy is a total creep. But would tlhat justify this knee-jerk reaction before we really knew anything?

UPDATE: It looks like this gentleman has been cited for possession of marijuana.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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