'Enjoy The Ride'? On the case of the provocative paddy wagon sign (UPDATED)

The words on the back door of the Baltimore Police paddy wagon read: "Enjoy your ride cuz we sure will!" A photo depicting the sign went up on Angelina Novak's Facebook page a little after 3 p.m. Tuesday. "YES IT IS REAL," Novak wrote in the introduction.

But is it really?

UPDATE: Yes, it is. City Paper spoke to the photographer, who doesn't want her name published, and obtained the original digital file from her phone. Uploaded to an online photo-authentication program, the picture appears to be an unaltered original. The photographer says she snapped it outside the police department's headquarters. "I was on the way to BMZA zoning hearing for Royal Farms," she says. "I didn't have time to do any editing."

She says she has heard that the police are investigating, which City Paper confirms.

What follows is City Paper's early effort to authenticate the picture using the Facebook posting, which was problematic at best.

Reaction to the Facebook posting was swift, and the photos were sent to the media within a few minutes. A.F. James MacArthur, who blogs, tweets, and podcasts as The Baltimore Spectator, vouched for the sign's authenticity, saying he had taken photos of similar signs on the inside of police vans himself. (Twice convicted of illegal gun charges, MacArthur has much experience with, and little love for, Baltimore Police.)

Within two hours someone had posted a link to a photo-analysis website that seems to suggest the picture had been doctored, the sign edited in. By then, however, a "police accountability" activist and journalist named John G. Vibes had run with the story. He soon published a piece at The Free Thought Project quoting "Laura," who took the photograph, the story says. "'I want to contact the state’s attorney! I took these photos today! Around 12:15-12:30 TODAY! The paddy wagon was parked outside the police station with the door open. I didn’t get a picture of the inside, but it was meant for those arrested,' Laura said to the Free Thought Project."

City Paper emailed the Baltimore Police Department a link to the Facebook post and asked them to tell us whether the sign was real or fake and, either way, what the department was doing about it. Here is what they sent: 

"The nature and the posting of wording in one of our transport vehicles is both concerning and unacceptable. We have recently become aware of the wording and have begun an internal investigation to determine all the circumstances surrounding its placement and to identify the person or persons responsible for its posting. This is an incident that is being taken very seriously."

City Paper ran the photo through the same photo-analysis website that had already flagged it as fake, and got the same result as the person who posted to Facebook. Using Error Level Analysis to show the rate of digital compression across the image, the Fotoforensics site shows the area around the sign inside the door does not match the compression rate of the rest of the image, suggesting an alteration was made where the words appear.

The result is not 100 percent conclusive, however, in part because it was taken from a Facebook post. City Paper took the image to two other online photo-sleuthing programs. Both of them were unable to do anything but say that the image could have been altered, because of the source. 

Determining whether a photograph is real or fraudulent is an old problem in journalism.  The new tools work best if the photographer offers up his or her original for analysis.

We've reached out to Novak to see if she'll put us in contact with "Laura" so we can better authenticate—or debunk—the case of the provocative paddy wagon.


Click here for more from Edward Ericson Jr. or email Edward at eericson@citypaper.com

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