By Anna Merlan
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Since 2003, the NYPD has been filming protesters at political demonstrations, regardless of whether anything illegal's going on. City lawyers were in court last month defending the practice, arguing that what happens in public view is fair game.
But police evidently aren't so keen on surveillance when the cameras are turned on themparticularly when those cameras show them abusing free-street-parking privileges.
On March 27, two volunteers from the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives were detained for taking pictures of police officers' private cars, which were parked on the sidewalk outside the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown. The volunteers say they were held and questioned at the precinct for about 20 minutes and instructed to erase the pictures.
Hoberman and a college student had been dispatched by Transportation Alternatives to document the scourge of sidewalk parking around City Hall and Chinatown. "We were told to photograph all the cars on the sidewalk with their license plates, and if they had any parking permits in the windows," Hoberman explains.
They started outside the Fifth Precinct on Elizabeth Street between Canal and Bayard streets, a narrow block where it's customary to find police and others parking with two wheels on the curb. Hoberman says he snapped a shot of an SUV straddling the sidewalk, and was quickly confronted by its owner, a cop in plain clothes.
"He said, 'Do you know this is my car? What are you doing?' " Hoberman recalls. "I told him we weren't targeting police or any particular people's cars, and that it was just a general survey, but he kept haranguing me, so I walked away." Hoberman says he resumed taking pictures, then turned back when he noticed his fellow volunteer being held up by a different officer.
They were asked to come inside the precinct, Hoberman says, where they were grilled by at least three officers. "They asked if we had anything to do with Critical Masstwice," he says. "They took our driver's licenses and asked us if we had any outstanding warrants."
Hoberman says the officers listed several reasons they could not photograph cops' personal vehiclesincluding concerns that if the license plate numbers were published online, gang members could track police to their homes. "One officer asked if we were familiar with the gang situation in Chinatown," Hoberman recalls. "He said his tires had been slashed outside the precinct. He said, 'This is not the West Village.' And he mentioned the Patriot Act.
"Then he asked me to delete the photographs on my camerajust the ones that showed private police vehicles. The ones of marked police cars and a taxicab didn't bother him." Worried about getting his ID back and already told by the cops that they had the right to hold him, Hoberman agreed.
His account was confirmed by David Snetman, the Transportation Alternatives staffer coordinating the survey, who came to the precinct to intervene. "They said the Patriot Act is somehow involved. The commanding officer, an Asian man, chimed in and said to me, 'Are you familiar with the Patriot Act?' " Snetman says. "They said if we wanted to continue our survey, Brian would have to delete the photos he'd taken. They didn't go so far as to say it was illegal; they just said they didn't want us to do it. I didn't really want to press the issue, so we just agreed and left. They were pretty upset."
Officers at the Fifth Precinct referred all calls to the NYPD's public information office. A spokesperson there, Deputy Chief Michael Collins, told the Voice he was "unable to find anyone familiar with the incident." However, Chief Collins said he did not see anything wrong with questioning the volunteers. "I would find it unusual if officers did not conduct a preliminary investigation if they observed unidentified people photographing department vehicles, officers' private vehicles, department buildings, etc.," Collins wrote in an e-mail.
But Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union says the incident is troubling. "There are no prohibitions against photographing in public spaces," Dunn notes. "They can't mandate anyone to destroy photographs. If they said [the volunteers] could be held, that sounds like coercion to me."
photo: Jan Lee
Lee says he was leaning in to capture the court officer's placard on the dash when an undercover detective shouted at him: "Who are you? What are you doing?" Unaware the officer was a cop, Lee kept shooting and snapped a photo of the detective, who he claims brushed the camera away, telling him, "You cannot take pictures!"
"I told him it was a public street and I can take pictures of whatever I want, and he said, 'No, you can't,' and hit my arm again. So I said, 'That's it, I'm calling the cops,' and flipped open my cell phone," Lee recalls. "Then he said, 'I am a cop' and flashed his badge."
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 monthwhile 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 mana 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 subjectedand 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."