Cops Stop Photo Ops


Mayor Bloomberg may love the way the NYPD handled the February 15 anti-war rally, but how do photographers who covered the rally rate the NYPD? Lensmen expect a certain amount of roughing up at rallies, even a broken lens or two, but some are calling this one too rough. Photogs from Britain and Maine felt disrespected and the Daily News complained that police mistreated two of its staff photographers. At times, police denied photographers access, forcing them into some areas and out of others, particularly when arrests were under way. Some cops viewed anyone with a camera as a target for verbal or physical aggression.

There is a smoking gun behind these allegations: photos of police pushing a Daily News photographer, taken by New York-based freelance photographer Rob Bennett. (One of Bennett’s shots appeared on page two of the February 16 Daily News, and more of the photographs can be viewed here.) The News reported that staffer Susan Watts was photographing police making arrests at the intersection of 53rd Street and Third Avenue when, according to Watts, “a cop charged at me and put his hand over my lens and pushed me down to the ground.” The accompanying photo shows a uniformed officer with his arm stretched toward Watts as she falls in the street. Watts was not hurt, but one of her cameras was ruined.

In a statement, News spokesman Ken Frydman announced that the paper has “complained in writing” to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly about how police treated both Watts and News photographer James Keivom. (Keivom was ticketed for disorderly conduct at the rally.) According to Frydman, Kelly has assured the News that “these incidents are being thoroughly investigated in two separate investigations.” The News is “pleased” by the response so far and “does not believe these incidents reflect a pattern of behavior.” Watts and Keivom declined to comment. NYPD spokesman Michael O’Looney confirmed that an Internal Affairs investigation is under way.

The police definitely used “rough tactics,” said Peter Coltart, a 24-year-old photographer who traveled from Maine to New York to cover the rally. Coltart, who carries a press pass from the Lewiston Sun Journal, spent several hours in the packed blocks of the East Fifties, watching police push the demonstrators around. “Sometimes when I put a camera up, they’d be more careful,” he said, “but other times if I tried to take a picture, they would either put their hand up or tell me to move along.”

Coltart claimed that one officer knocked him down three times and another picked him up off the street and threw him. The first incident occurred at an intersection where protesters were densely packed on the sidewalk, facing a line of cops on foot and on horseback. The police were pushing people back so buses and cranes could come through. “I was standing there taking photographs,” he recalled. “Me and the cop were facing each other and the cop said, ‘You’ve gotta move.’ ” The next thing he remembers is, “I got knocked down by a police officer. I was on the ground, got up, and got knocked down again. I was knocked down three times and trampled on by other protesters.”

Later, Coltart arrived on a side street where protesters had begun a mass sit-down. Police were telling people to get up and arresting them if they did not. “I saw this guy lying down getting arrested,” Coltart recalled. “I ran out toward the street, got on my stomach in front of the guy, and popped off two frames. Then all of a sudden, I was floating. A big cop reached down—he must have weighed over 200 pounds. I weigh 150. He grabbed my jacket with one hand and picked me up. I kept shooting. He threw me back into the crowd. I don’t think I landed on my feet.”

The NYPD had its own photo staff at the rally, equipped with digital and video cameras. Indeed, one of Bennett’s photos shows a cop with a video camera trained on Susan Watts. “They had complete freedom to take pictures of whatever they wanted,” Coltart noted, “but when we took photos, they pushed us down.”

For some cops, verbal harassment seemed to suffice, as when a member of the police press office ordered a newspaper reporter to leave a tense scene. The reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled he was standing on the sidewalk, talking on his cell with his NYPD press pass in full view, as police surrounded a group of protesters and forced them against a building. Suddenly an officer started yelling, telling him to get off the block. The reporter objected at first, then left. Moments later, he said, “the same officer came up and said, ‘You’ll never wear one of my credentials again.’ ”

Another target of intimidation was Paul Mattsson, a 42-year-old from London who contributes to the photo agency Report Digital. Mattsson, who has covered demonstrations for 20 years, said, “I’ve been hassled, beaten up, shot at, and arrested. I’ve had cameras smashed by police and protesters. But nobody has ever told me that I’m not allowed to do my job.”

Two days before the rally, Mattsson went to the press accreditation office of police headquarters to apply for a temporary NYPD press pass. He showed two press cards, one issued by the British National Union of Journalists and recognized by the British police, the other issued by the International Federation of Journalists. But, he said, the man behind the counter looked at him and said bluntly, “You can’t work here.”

The day of the rally, Mattsson said, the organizers gave him credentials that allowed him to work in the enclosed area surrounding the stage. Then he saw the man he met at police headquarters doing a press check. Again the man told him, “You can’t work.” The man directed Mattsson to a police press bus, where other officers helped him get where he wanted to go.

Later, Mattsson asked for permission to cross a roadblock. He said that as he was taking out his international press card, one officer began tapping his baton and “gesticulating with it” in a threatening way, refusing to let him proceed. “Do you speak English?” the officer asked. Later, at other roadblocks, the police “kept giving me grief [about his credentials]. They would not tell me where there was a clear way around. I spent two hours going in a circle. . . . I missed a lot of the action I came to cover.”

NYPD lieutenant Elias Nikas said the department does not issue temporary press passes, but British journalists did attend the rally and had their cards honored. As for Mattsson’s being told, “You can’t work here,” Nikas said, “that doesn’t sound right.”

Every journalist interviewed for this story met some cops at the rally who were “very nice,” “sensitive,” and “down to earth.” But that doesn’t excuse the cops who think it’s necessary to control photographers with aggression.

See more shots of Daily News photographer Susan Watts being knocked down here.