Watch Where You Point That ‘Scope: Police Mistake Telescope for a Gun

One more thing amateur astronomers might need to worry about besides clouds, bugs, and trying to fix equipment malfunctions in the dark – and this one’s a little more serious.

Earlier this week, two students at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota were settting up a telescope and camera system to take pictures of the Moon when armed police approached them. The police officers had mistaken the telescope for a rifle.

Students Levi Joraanstad and Colin Waldera told WDAY TV in Fargo that they were were setting up their telescope behind their apartment’s garage when they were blinded by a bright light and told to stop moving.

Initially, they thought it was a joke, that fellow students were pulling a prank, and because police were shining a bright light at them, the two students were blinded.

Police said that an officer patrolling the area had seen what he thought was suspicious activity behind the garage, thinking that one of the students’ dark sweater with white lettering on the back looked like a tactical vest, and that the telescope might be a rifle.

Police added that their response was a “better safe than sorry” approach, and they said the two students were never in any danger of being shot.

However, Joraanstad and Waldera said since they thought it was a joke, they initially ignored the order to stop moving and kept digging in their bags for equipment.

“I was kind of fumbling around with my stuff and my roommate and I were kind of talking, we were kind of wondering, what the heck’s going on? This is pretty dum that these guys are doing this,” WDAY quoted Joraanstad, a junior at NDSU. “And then they started shouting to quit moving or we could be shot. And so at that moment we kind of look at each other and we’re thinking we better take this seriously.”

If the police had acted more aggressively, the outcome could have been tragic. Joraanstad said the officers were very apologetic when they realized their mistake, and they explained what had happened.

So, watch where and how you point your telescope.

This is a rare occurrence, of course, and is nothing like risks amateur astronomers in Afghanistan regularly take to look through a telescope and share their views with local people. We wrote an article — which you can read here — about how they have to deal with more serious complications, such as making sure the area is clear of land mines, not arousing the suspicions the Taliban or the local police, and watching out for potential bombing raids by the US/UK/Afghan military alliance.

UPDATE: Maybe incidents like this aren’t quite as rare as I thought. Universe Today’s Bob King told me that just two weeks ago he was out observing in the countryside, when a very similar event happened to him. “A truck pulled up fast, with bright lights blinding my eyes and then the sheriff walked out of the car,” Bob said. “I quickly identified myself and explained what I was up to. He thought I was burying a dead body! No kidding.”


Source: WDAY TV

18 Replies to “Watch Where You Point That ‘Scope: Police Mistake Telescope for a Gun”

  1. Hard to believe? I wonder what would have happened if the two guys had been afro-american or from the middle east? Living in fear is far too common these days. Whatever happened to leaving your house unlocked and not having to worry about it?

    “Hey Dude! Have you seen my country anywhere’s around here?”

    1. Was also my first reaction. Good for him to be white….while other people got shot for a toy gun. Or a hoodie…

  2. That’s scope’s got a hell of a calibre!
    What were those two moronic policemen ‘thinking’ of ?

    1. This here is an 8 inch newtonian. Its the world’s most powerful light bucket! So I am only gonna ask you one time. Do you feel lucky? Well? Do ya punk?

  3. to me the USA is the “paranoia hot spot” of the world. What would happen IF we make contact with real Aliens and those cops are near by????

  4. To be fair to the cops, one of the kids WAS wearing a sweater, which could be mistaken for a hoodie.

  5. It had happened to me, also…!
    When I was trying to see comet Halley in 1986…

    We should accept that they are doing their assignment…

  6. Cops are going around in vehicles with lots of lighting to destroy their night vision. Most are also not at all familiar with astronomical equipment – and are trained to view unusual behavior as potentially problematic.

    The net effect is that if I am going to set up in a location where I figure law enforcement might either see me and not understand or might have someone call them about my activity – I will call the local sheriff or police office and tell them where I will be and what I will be doing. I’ll also invite them to stop by and have a look-see but please be careful with the lights.

    Oh, and a nice Dobsonian can look a lot like a mortar in poor lighting and at a distance. I remember reading where one amateur astronomer was asked to leave a park because his mortar/Dob was not all that far from the hotel where a VIP (I think it was a vice president) was staying that night.

  7. This would never happen in Norway. USA have paranoid trigger happy police dangerous to innocent people. Norway don’t and we don’t want that. We are a peaceful country with mostly unarmed police, sane weapon laws, mostly unarmed criminals, and extremely few shot dead per year. Norwegian police have actually never shot dead anyone in duty and its years ago since they shot someone wounded. Sorry for my political twist on this, but looking from this side of the Atlantic, USA gun and police politics are so tragic i don’t have words for it.

  8. Yea, the police are so bad, just terrible. If the time comes when all you above needs someone to come help you, I hope the “bad” police doesn’t come to save your sorry ass’s. you ppl suck

  9. As the only telescope maker in Scotland, the late John Braithwaite sold a lot of instruments through Astronomy Ireland. Driving through Northern Ireland towards the Border, when times over there were bad, he had several colourful encounters with soldiers who thought the reflectors could be home-made mortars. Luckily their officers were better informed. Even more caution was required when we were trying to help a friend start an astronomy tour business in Turkey. The watchword definitely is ‘mind how you go’.

  10. There is a distrust between police and the public. The police assume activity is suspicious or illegal because that’s what they are trained to look for, and the public is concerned about excessive force or misinterpretation of actions (reaching for a weapon, etc.) because they have seen a lot of this in the news.

    Crime rates are high, but this is usually the case when the economy is bad. The recession may be over, but a lot of people are still dealing with tough times, which can lead to illegal means of making a living, and may also lead to depression, frustration, or a feeling of hopelessness. Normal people can wind up doing terrible things.

    There is no easy solution to the problem. Politicians want to “take action” because that makes them look good and they want more votes. The results can be over-reaching law enforcement that criminalizes previously legal activities, that has no real effect on the actual crime that they are trying to prevent.

    My worry is that people who engage in healthy, educational hobbies are being treated as possible threats, and this is one demonstration.

    Paranoia is powerful.

  11. Perhaps this is another example of scientific illiteracy and a lack of critical thinking. The largest caliber rifle is .50″ in diameter. This is obviously larger than that. Not every cylinder is a weapon and not all nocturnal activity is illegal. Maybe the police should have approached the situation with the question, “What’s going on?” rather than, “Let’s see what bad things those 2 guys are up to?”

  12. Police are all Moronic Scum, always over react when there’s nothing wrong, Never there when there is a real threat. They were probably trying to fine innocent members of the public to try and pay their wages . Police Parasites…..

    1. Your comment is the definition of ‘moronic’. I will guarantee, if you find yourself the victim of a crime, those same police will be who you call and they will come to your aid. Sheesh…….

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