Watching the Detectives

The NYPD wants to take your picture—but beware of turning your lens on the cops

According to Lee, the detective pushed him against a roll-down gate, then dragged him by the collar to the NYPD kiosk on Park Row. Lee, a prominent community advocate and business owner, says he was handcuffed and forced to kneel on the street for about 15 minutes while the detective and another uniformed officer radioed for backup.

The police took his camera and ran a check on his ID, then released him, telling him he needed a permit from the NYPD to photograph cars belonging to law enforcement personnel. "The officer said, 'There's a right way and wrong way to take photographs, and you're doing it the wrong way,' " Lee recalls.

The NYPD told the Voice the department has no record of this incident, either, though Lee says the commander of the Fifth Precinct visited his antique store on Mott Street to speak with him about it a few days later, after Lee called civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and Community Board 3.

Lee says he felt humiliated and doesn't buy the officers' claim: that they were concerned he could illegally copy the placards. He views his detention as an effort to intimidate him and other Chinatown activists, who have been raising a stink about what they see as the abuse of street-parking privileges by cops, court officers, and municipal workers in their neighborhood. They've made a short documentary about it called Clogged Arteries, in partnership with Community Board 3. Lee and fellow business owners say the all-day parking by police and other government workers (who are supposed to use their placards only on "official business") impedes emergency responders and drives away shoppers.

Police officers' seeming paranoia over street photography goes beyond disputes over parking placards. The MTA nixed its proposed ban on subway photos, but cops have been hassling people for filming at commuter rail stations. A NY1 reporter was briefly detained in Penn Station last month—while doing a story about this very issue.

"We are constantly getting complaints of people being approached by NYPD cops for independent photography and filming," says Dunn. The NYCLU recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a well-known Indian documentary filmmaker who was stopped by police last May while filming taxis in midtown and then detained for several hours. Dunn also points to an incident on January 20, when police stopped a man taking pictures near the George Washington Bridge. According to Dunn, the officers brought him back to his home and went through his personal photo albums. The NYPD then sent two members of the intelligence divison to interview the man—a white massage therapist from Washington Heights who takes pictures of flowers as his hobby.

No doubt cops have reason to be on alert after 9-11. But at issue, says Dunn, are the degrees of interrogation to which people are being subjected—and to what end? In the case of the Chinatown incidents, Dunn offers a simple solution: "If police officers don't want their private vehicles photographed, then they should not park them on public streets."

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