The NYPD Harasses a Photographer at Coney Island

It's not the first case of illegal censorship by a department that says "shoot first, hand over film later"

Manhattan commercial photographer Simon Lund loves Coney Island so much that he treks out there 10 to 20 times each summer to take pictures. But it was only on his latest venture that Lund encountered something he'd never experienced in all his trips there over the years: an unwanted photo editor from the NYPD.

As if he were in a police state, Lund was intimidated by a cop into giving up his film, even though he was doing nothing wrong and wasn't formally accused of anything.

The upshot is that "the police had no right to get involved—none," says Todd Maisel, vice president of the New York Press Photographers Association.

Daniel Krall

Under the law, Lund was allowed to take a photo of anyone in public. If he intended to use the picture commercially, he'd have to get a signed release.

Maisel, a shooter for the Daily News, says news photogs get into occasional scrapes with police, but most know never to give up their film. However, he says he can see how a commercial photographer might be more easily intimidated by the NYPD.

NYPD officials declined to comment for this story, but several allegations of the cops' heavy-handed behavior toward photographers have been documented. The NYCLU has filed several lawsuits against the NYPD, accusing them of violating First Amendment rights in its harassment of photographers. One of the suits, Sharma v. NYPD, was filed in January 2006, when Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, who was shooting taxis in midtown, was stopped by police and detained for several hours, during which he was quizzed about "terrorist" activities. That August, the suit was expanded at the NYCLU's request to include a slew of photographers.

"Photographers and filmmakers have been unlawfully detained, searched, and threatened with arrest if they would not disclose or destroy their film," the Sharma suit contends, adding that the harassment, ominously, doesn't always end there. "Photographers have also been subjected to a second round of questioning by members of the NYPD's Intelligence Division," the suit alleges.

The department also may be keeping close track of which photographers it harasses. The suit accuses the NYPD of maintaining a database that includes the identities of everyone "investigated for photography . . . regardless of the outcome of the investigation."

If that's the case, then Simon Lund is on the list.

His troubles started when he was with his wife, Jano, clicking away at Coney Island on Memorial Day. A woman approached him and accused him of taking pictures of her young son. Lund says that if he did, he was unaware of it; he recalls that he was shooting the rides. In any event, Lund knew that it's legal to take pictures of people, even kids, in public. (For later commercial use, photographers have to get releases from the children's parents.)

The woman told him to accompany her while she found a cop. She insisted that Lund erase the picture, but Lund was using a film camera, not a digital one, and thus couldn't erase individual shots. Nevertheless, he says, he willingly followed her over to a group of police officers congregating on the boardwalk. "I just wanted to sort it out, because I knew it was fine to take pictures in public," he says.

A cop whom Lund couldn't fully identify, however, didn't see it that way. Lund says the cop asked him and his wife if they had children. When they said no, the officer said: "If you did, you'd understand why she is so upset." The woman was joined by other family members, and soon they were all yelling at the police to make Lund hand over his film.

"It was starting to get uglier and uglier," says Lund. "The mother of the child was getting really hostile: 'Why isn't he destroying it? How can he take pictures of my child?' "

Lund says the cop then leaned over to him and said: "You should destroy your film right now, or give it to her. You've got to give up your film, or things are going to get much worse for you."

"I knew at that point I could fight it," says Lund. "I knew I was right." But he recalls that he didn't want to find out what the cop meant by things getting "much worse for you."

So he gave the film and a business card to a friend of the woman's. "The cop didn't exactly say, 'I'm going to take you to jail,' " says Lund, "but basically, he didn't leave me any other choice."

Lund asked that the woman develop the photos, remove any pictures of her son, and please return the rest of the photographs to him. He hasn't heard from her since. He says he plans to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

"We're quite confident that the NYPD has told its police officers, in one way or another, that they should be paying very, very close attention to photographers," says Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU's associate legal director. "But they haven't been given clear directions on the limits in which they have to conduct those investigations. Police officers are not allowed to look at images without consent of the photographer, and they have no authority to order someone to let them look at their pictures or to confiscate their film. And it happens all the time."

Officials at the CCRB and the NYCLU say that complaints about the police approaching people taking pictures and either demanding to see their photos or seizing and destroying them have been on the rise ever since 9/11.

Dunn says this particular case offers the "wrinkle" of Lund willingly approaching the cops instead of the cops approaching him. "But the outcome is the same," he adds: "Someone's film is disappearing."

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