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The NYPD Harasses a Photographer at Coney Island

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.

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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The NYPD Releases Detailed Data on Dogs They’ve Shot, But Not on The People

Last week, the NYPD gave the City Council nine years’ worth of previously confidential detailed reports on the department’s shooting incidents.

But members of the council’s Public Safety Committee, which ostensibly oversees the NYPD, were barking up the wrong tree if they thought these long-sought-after Firearms Discharge Reports were going to reveal anything about the racial makeup of the people shot by New York’s cops.

On the other hand, among all the statistics and analyses were detailed breakdowns of the breeds of dogs shot by cops.

In 1998, the same year the NYPD began reporting in earnest about its canine shooting victims, it stopped providing the racial breakdown of its human victims—and of the cops who shot them.

“We know more about the breed of dogs that have been shot than we know about the people who have been shot,” said committee chairman Peter Vallone.

The lack of detail on the race of human shooting victims should be a particularly touchy topic, given that it’s widely believed that a disproportionately high number of blacks and Latinos are shot by police. In addition, a lawsuit claiming that police searches for missing persons are racially biased has gotten the go-ahead from a judge to proceed to trial, as the Voice reported last week (“Missing in Action,” May 7–13).

NYPD statistics might shed light on the difference in justice—and injustice— received by New Yorkers on the basis of the color of their skin. Stats that have been pried out of the NYPD do show that blacks and Latinos also bear the brunt of an astonishingly high number of minor pot busts (“Weeding Out Blacks and Latinos,” April 30–May 6).

But when it comes to the more deadly stats—like those of police-shooting victims—dogs are a breed apart in the department’s eyes. We can now say, for example, that between 1998 and 2006, pit bulls were overwhelmingly the target of choice for New York City’s cops. According to the NYPD’s meticulous records, there were 78 dogs shot by cops in 1998. Some 234 shots were fired at those dogs—145 of which hit them, for a 63 percent hit rate. In 2006, there were 30 incidents of cops shooting dogs, during which cops fired 113 shots (without return fire, apparently), and 55 bullets found their targets.

Overall, the most popular targets during those years, after pit bulls, were Rottweilers, with German shepherds being third, according to the reports.

Vallone’s mild complaint—he followed it up with a compliment to the NYPD—was aired at a May 5 Public Safety Committee hearing to discuss several bills that would require the police by law to be more forthcoming with statistics on shootings, gun trafficking, and housing-project crimes.

Deputy Chief John Gerrish politely made the seemingly contradictory statement that “we’d gladly provide” any information the committee needs, but that the NYPD would fight any attempt to make providing such information mandatory because, he said, it would unnecessarily tax police resources. Gerrish cited the “confidential” Firearms Discharge Reports he’d just handed over as an example of why such laws are not needed.

What Gerrish didn’t tell the council members was that Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, had obtained those reports through a freedom-of-information request and had planned to hand them out to committee members at that same hearing.

“He stole my thunder,” Dunn told the committee.

When asked about the racial breakdown of NYPD shootings involving humans, Gerrish insisted that the department doesn’t collect that data.

But such breakdowns were routinely part of the NYPD’s pre-1998 Firearms Discharge Reports. After Gerrish testified, Dunn told the committee members that the NYCLU had also obtained the reports—then called Firearms Discharge Assault Reports—for 1996 and 1997, in which that information was included. In 1996, for example, under the listing “Ethnicity of Perps,” it shows that, of the 413 people shot whose ethnicity was listed on police reports, 239 were black. That’s about 58 percent, or more than double the percentage of the city’s black population. Of the remaining shooting victims, 134 (or 32 percent) were Latino, and 32 (or 7.7 percent) were white. The human shooting stats for 1997 were similar: 181 blacks, or 57 percent; 99 Latinos, or 31 percent; and 26 whites, or 8.2 percent. As Dunn pointed out, close to 90 percent of the NYPD’s shooting victims were black or Latino.

In 1996, 62 percent of the cops who fired their guns were white, 17 percent black, and 19 percent Latino. In 1997, about 59 percent of the cops who fired their guns were white, compared to about 20 percent for both black and Latino officers. (The report didn’t include the racial breakdown of the force in those years.)

Gerrish said that providing statistics on the age, race, and gender of each officer involved in a shooting as well as for the people who were shot is a waste of the NYPD’s time and resources, because “no meaningful conclusions may be drawn from such information, since every firearms discharge must be judged in light of the unique circumstances in which it occurs, and any conclusion drawn from the purely demographic data involved is fatally flawed.”

But it’s not just shooting statistics that the NYPD has been holding back. When asked why the department doesn’t provide to the Public Safety Committee a breakdown of crime by housing project, Gerrish replied that the NYPD has that information, but prefers to release it only as part of the overall precinct-crime stats. He also balked at providing reports by precinct on the number and type of weapons seized.

“We need to spend our resources on getting the guns off the street rather than compiling reports about our activity in doing so,” said Gerrish, who is the commanding officer of the Office of Management Analysis and Planning, the large unit solely responsible for compiling such reports.

Afterward, even the relentlessly pro-police Vallone had to admit that “when it comes to the last few years, [the NYPD has] clearly drawn a line in the sand when it comes to giving out information.” He added that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s philosophy when it comes to disseminating information has evolved into: “We can do it—we just don’t feel like it.”

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I Turn My Camera On

New York street photographers and indie filmmakers say their First Amendment rights are still at risk under newly revised regulations put forth by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting (MOFTB). Following a summer- long outcry from artists and activists over the first draft of rules published on May 25—which largely prohibited shooting in the city without a permit and $1 million insurance policy—the city redrew its guidelines and released a friendlier version on October 30. But the battle is far from over.

“Out on the streets, photographers and filmmakers continue to face serious problems with police interference,” filmmaker Jem Cohen recently wrote via e-mail. Cohen, who has had his film confiscated by Amtrak police and has been repeatedly shut down by the New York City Police Department, cites as evidence a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed earlier this month against the NYPD for the handcuffing and detaining of Columbia grad student Arun Wiita, who had been photographing a Manhattan subway station in July.

Last Thursday, a final and sparsely attended public hearing took place at the offices of the Economic Development Corporation to address the rules (with nearly as many video cameras present as people). While the NYCLU, along with advocacy groups such as Cohen’s Picture NY, I-Witness, and the National Press Photographers Association, commended the MOFTB for eliminating certain mandates (permits were required for two or more people using a camera for more than 30 minutes), two major sticking points remain: the definition of “obstruction” and the need for police training.

As currently stated in the regulations, permits are required if filming or photographic activity involves the “obstruction of one or more lanes of a street or walkway or a bridge, or if such activity results in less than eight feet or one half of the width of the sidewalk.”

Critics say the obstruction clause is too vague. “I’m a bigger obstruction with a baby stroller and a dog,” said New York producer Lisa Guido.

To avoid confusion, NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman and legal director Christopher Dunn sent a letter to MOFTB commissioner Katherine Oliver, asking for an explicit statement that declares “standing on the sidewalk,” in and of itself, does not constitute obstruction. As Cohen explained, “I can easily envision a police officer [saying], ‘No one can walk through you, so you are therefore an obstruction.'”

While the MOFTB is listening to artists and filmmakers’ concerns, associate commissioner Julianne Cho says they must first review all the comments, and then will “determine whether we’re going to publish as is, or revise with comments in mind, or go back to the drawing board.”

But as much as the decision rests with the MOFTB, it’s the NYPD that continually arises as the biggest obstruction to artists’ civil liberties. Says Dunn, “The real issue is the cops, which is always, frankly, the biggest issue. That’s where most photographers and filmmakers encounter real-life problems.”

“Do you think cops will measure the sidewalk to mark how eight feet must be clear?” asked video artist Juliana Luecking at the hearing. “Will they wear [measuring tapes] on their gun belt? Like the first proposal, these regulations give law-enforcement officials the power to prohibit my right to use a camera in public—and shield itself from lawsuits.”

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Double Secret Probation

The NYPD’s RNC spying controversy can’t come in from the cold just yet.

Some 600 pages of previously secret police records at the center of a months-long legal tug-of-war between the city and the New York Civil Liberties Union were finally made public last week, but now the Voice has learned that the city is holding back yet another set of secret documents regarding the police department’s widespread intelligence-gathering in anticipation of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

In October 2004, lawsuits were filed by the NYCLU and other attorneys representing approximately 1,800 demonstrators and bystanders who claimed that the NYPD had falsely arrested and detained them during the convention. The city had originally produced the 600-page set of documents to bolster its case, but then asked that it be kept secret from the public and press. That set off the legal battle that culminated in Judge James Francis’s decision last week to make the documents available to the public.

By the time that decision was rendered, however, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen had revealed, in a March 28 deposition, the existence of another set of secret reports.

NYCLU executive legal director Christopher Dunn tells the Voice that the new documents (which he hasn’t seen but were described by Cohen during his sealed deposition) reportedly detail “a separate part of the [intelligence-gathering] operation,” which, Dunn says, “many people are going to find to be more troubling than what has been disclosed so far.”

Kate Ahlers, spokeswoman for the city’s Corporation Counsel, did not return a request for comment.

The documents that were released last week provide a voluminous, if somewhat vague, year-long diary of the planning and movements undertaken by protest organizations from around the country leading up to the convention.

Among the more ridiculous uses of NYPD resources described in the records is the case of Aron Kay. Known better as “the Yippie Pieman,” Kay is described by one sympathetic civil rights official as an overweight, “unhealthy guy . . . who is still stuck in the ’60s.” The NYPD, however, considered the Pieman worthy of not one but two police intelligence updates.

“Eccentric activist Aron ‘Pieman’ Kay is calling for like-minded activists to target President
Bush for a ‘pie in the face attack’ during his appearance at the RNC,” reads one report. “Kay maintains an Internet website on which he posts evidence of past ‘pieings,’ including pictures of politicians such as former Mayor Beame, and Senator Moynihan during and after being ‘attacked.’ Additionally, Kay claimed that anyone supporting President Bush also ‘deserves a pie.’ ”

Another document marked “secret” warns: “Flashing to be utilized as protest tactic.” Women from a group named “Axis of Eve,” police covertly learned, planned to strip down to their underwear, on which they planned to write such statements as “Fire Bush,” “Expose Bush,” and “Down With Bush.” An unknown officer also managed to work in this double entendre: “This event is said to include the participation of roughly 100 women in thong type underwear and will be advertised heavily amongst the media for maximum exposure.”

No event, however tangentially related to the RNC, appears to have escaped the notice of the NYPD’s intelligence officers. An animal-rights group whose members set off pipe bombs in California may protest at the convention, one report warns. A nut caught outside Buckingham Palace wearing body armor, a covert radio, and plastic handcuffs wasn’t just a kook but a reminder that cops on duty at the RNC “must remain vigilant to possible infiltration by extremist elements,” according to another.

The Internet seems to have been the NYPD’s deepest Deep Throat. When Ted Rall wrote on his website in November 2003, “It will be Chicago 1968,” and “Things are going to burn, people are going to die,” a detective duly noted those quotes, in bold, in another missive. As if making the case for why these random thoughts should be taken seriously, the officer added, “Ted Rall is a Columbia University graduate who earns a living as a cartoonist/radio host and has been published in the
Village Voice.”

The source of other reports is still a mystery. One, dated December 2003, explains that “on 15 January 2004, Councilman Charles Barron plans on attending a rally at an unknown location to demand a change in venue for the RNC, unless the RNC indicates that it is willing to address issues regarding HIV/AIDS, housing, and welfare.”

“How did [the report writer] get that information?” Barron asks the Voice, adding that he doesn’t remember hosting such an event. “Did he have somebody following us? Is he tapping the phone, does he have informants, has he infiltrated our organization? I think this is absurd. This is a violation of our basic constitutional civil rights.” Barron says he has contacted a lawyer and is pondering legal action.

“When is somebody going to stop Ray Kelly?” says the longtime critic of the police
commissioner. “This is further proof that Kelly is out of control and should be made to resign or be fired. Bloomberg needs to call Kelly up and say, ‘Hey man, I’ve had enough. You’re out.’ ”

The document dump did produce information that the NYPD should genuinely have been concerned about. One record warns about the possibility of “improvised projectile weapons,” including tiki torches using coffee cans on sticks, Super Soaker toy guns filled with flammable liquids, or chemical irritants and egg shells, drained and also filled with harmful fluids.

But even these more legitimate concerns are described in ways that provide no details about how information was obtained. In fact, the 600 pages of documents look nothing like traditional police reports.

Most of the pages are stamped “secret” at the top and then appear just to be summaries of information. On many pages, adjoining paragraphs don’t appear to have anything to do with each other, jumping from one topic to another. There are no names of the officers who gathered the information or the sources providing it. There are no dates or locations detailing how the information was obtained.

Dunn says that because the information appears to be merely summaries, he’s asking the city to produce the actual police reports they’re based on.

“The city stated there are no underlying materials to them,” Dunn says.

The Voice sent copies of the summaries to a former NYPD intelligence officer, who responded, “Of course there are reports out there. What do you think, that we just remembered a lot of shit and just wrote it down?”

Dunn says that the next time he questions Cohen under oath, in round two of his deposition, he plans to ask him that same question.

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Who’s Watching?

One of the suspects is a burly man in his forties clad in a Harley-Davidson shirt and denim jacket, holding a video camera. Another is a fit-looking fellow, his hair shorn very close on the sides, who has stopped to chat on his phone. A guy with sunglasses and a buttoned-up jean jacket and his buddy in shades and fisherman’s hat also arouse suspicion. There’s just something about these four that screams “cop.”

They are among the two dozen or so suspected “undercover” NYPD officers whose photos adorn a fridge at the Houston Street office of Time’s Up!, the environmental activist group known for its participation in Critical Mass bike events around the city. The collection of snapshots has been growing for a while, says organizer Bill DiPaolo. But recently they’ve taken on new significance.

The Voice reported last month that lawyers who have for decades challenged NYPD surveillance of activist groups are taking issue with a new police policy that allows widespread videotaping of political expression (“The Spying Game,” December 13). A few days later The New York Times revealed videotape evidence of undercover cops not only watching political events like Critical Mass rallies, but also participating in and even manipulating them.

This news of more aggressive local snooping came amid revelations that federal surveillance had also reached previously unknown dimensions:

The National Security Agency has eavesdropped in the United States on an unknown number of phone calls and e-mails and analyzed traffic involving even more transmissions.

The FBI has monitored groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, and Catholic Workers (a group that, according to an FBI memo uncovered by the ACLU, “advocated peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology”).

A database created by the Pentagon’s TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) system listed several protests, including a Quaker meeting in Florida, as “suspicious incidents.”

For anti-war groups in the city, the revelations come at a critical time: The third anniversary of the Iraq invasion is approaching, and polls suggest the public is turning against U.S. military involvement there, so it’s an important moment for enlisting new supporters. For groups like Time’s Up!, the newly exposed tactics signal an escalation in a long battle.

To all activists, merely the news of these aggressive tactics can have a chilling effect. The question facing each group is whether and how to react.

Defenders of increased surveillance routinely say that the 9-11 attacks ushered in a new reality. But law enforcement has waded into these waters before. FBI agents infiltrated and disrupted political groups in the ’60s and ’70s as part of COINTELPRO. In the last days of segregation, Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission spied on civil rights meetings. For decades, “red squads” in places like Chicago, Detroit, and New York hound-ed local dissidents. When these activities were exposed, lawsuits and laws established new rules for gathering intelligence—and experienced activists began to devise ways to neutralize government espionage.

Author Brian Glick outlined some of these methods in the 1989 book War at Home: “Deal openly with the form and content of what anyone says and does. . . . Establish a process through which anyone who suspects an infiltrator can express his or her fears without scaring others.” And once an agent has been uncovered, he said, spread the word. (A professor at Fordham Law School, Glick is considering updating the book to address the new tactics of the war on terror.)

DiPaolo from Time’s Up! says the group has been taking countermeasures for years, like starting a video collective to gather evidence of spying and passing around the snapshots of suspected undercovers. But with the news of intensified police tactics, DiPaolo says, “we’re stepping up our meetings to address the subject,” and considering lawsuits.

Time’s Up! is also encouraging members who think they spot a cop “to try and talk to them and find out who they are,” DiPaolo says. Doing so makes people nervous because they might be singled out for arrest. “So you have to do it a certain way,” he says, with one person asking, one person taping, and a third person taping the other two.

The trick, of course, is figuring out who’s a cop; it’s not an exact science. “They just don’t fit in. They’re very quiet. They don’t talk to anybody. They do things that are very intimidating,” says DiPaolo of the suspected officers. “We think we know who they are.”

But a quiet, solitary person could just as well be a nervous newcomer as an undercover police officer. And that’s why it’s tricky for activists to start trying to out spies.

“I think we need to have a healthy paranoia,” says Bill Dobbs, spokesman for the umbrella anti-war group United for Peace and Justice, which is calling for local groups around the country to plan events for the March 19 war anniversary. But Dobbs is leery of activist groups launching aggressive efforts to identify undercover cops. “There’s no way of telling, and to get into finger-pointing and trying to ascertain if somebody might be working for the government can cause more harm than somebody working for the government.”

That’s one reason why several local groups surveyed by the Voice responded to the NYPD revelations with shrugs. Says Sally Connors of the Granny Peace Brigade, “If they want to listen to us debate whether to wear armbands or babushkas, let them knock themselves out.”

Although most local groups don’t plan to adopt countermeasures, the police tactics are having an impact.

Chuck Zlatkin of Chelsea Neighbors United to End the War, which holds vigils every Tuesday night at Eighth Avenue and 24th Street, says the veteran activists who now attend aren’t put off by surveillance. But, he adds, “Those who don’t join us, that’s where [the chilling effect] comes from—people who are afraid of that.”

The dilemma for organizers is that those are the people they most want to enlist—not hardened activists but folks from the middle ground whose consciences have been aroused. They’re not people who are likely to enjoy playing cat and mouse with cops. Time’s Up! blames its bad relationship with the police for the dwindling number of families at Critical Mass bike events. Immigrants might be especially reluctant to risk interacting with the fuzz.

New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director Christopher Dunn says a number of groups have called in since the Times article worried about police spying. Their fears illustrate how police tactics can undermine organizations.

“Most groups rely on people who don’t necessarily know each other,” says Dunn, “and they’re always trying to recruit new people to work on their activities. And when you all of a sudden have to worry about whether people are cops, it really puts a damper on organizing activities. You get a phone call asking about an event, and you wonder if this is a cop.”

It seems that activist groups are boxed in. Trying to expose police spies might sow division. Letting them roam spurs distrust. However, there are ways to resist surveillance or infiltration. One is filing a freedom-of-information request to see if you or your group has been targeted. NYCLU is planning to file a number of these very soon on behalf of activist groups. “It creates a legal avenue through which one might be able to force disclosure about certain types of surveillance,” Dunn says.

Activists might never know if the police are watching them. Many just assume that they are. Some take solace in the logic that the cops wouldn’t bother spying unless the message was starting to resonate. “You’d think they wouldn’t care about a bunch of grandmothers, but we’re making an impact, I guess,” says Joan Wile of Grandmothers Against the War, part of the Grannies for Peace coalition.

Another comfort, says DiPaolo, is that the exposure of police tactics can also have a chilling effect upon the police themselves. After seeing cops at events for years, DiPaolo got a surprise at a recent memorial to fallen bicyclists. “They weren’t there,” he says.