In October 2009, Shawn Nee, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and photographer in Hollywood, California, was stopped by members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) while taking pictures at a stop on the L.A. subway system.
Disturbing information about the police stop reveals startling and troubling information about how the Sheriff's Department reports on what it considers suspicious terrorist activity. And what's happening in L.A. is almost certainly happening everywhere across the country.
The encounter was recorded on a body camera Nee wore for protection. A video of the event went viral as viewers watched Deputy Richard Gylfie ask Nee if he was in "cahoots with Al Qaeda" to sell his pictures "for a terrorist purpose." After detaining Nee with the assistance of his partner Deputy Roberto Bayes, searching through the contents of Nee's pockets, and holding Nee's hands behind his back, Gylfie threatened to put him on "the FBI's hit list."
"On one level you're thinking, is this really happening? And then on another level you're thinking, this shouldn't be happening," says Nee of the incident. Nee became a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the sheriff's department along with two other photographers and the National Photographer's Rights Organization. Nee is represented by Peter Bibring at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
"Photography is not a crime, it's artistic expression," says Bibring. "There is no reason to believe that just [because] he's taking photographs he's engaged in any kind of criminal or terrorist activity."
Bibring says that millions of people every day use their cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and even professional-grade cameras to document their lives and the world around them. "In public areas, on public streets, no law bars people from taking photographs," says Bibring.
Internal Investigation Report: Officer's 'Hypersensitive' Actions 'Laudable'
After Nee filed a complaint with the department saying that his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the LASD launched an internal affairs investigation. Reason TV has obtained a copy of the investigation report's summary which doesn't just defend the officers involved but congratulates them for their aggressive actions and threats. "The vigilance shown by Deputy Gylfie in detecting suspicious activity is laudable and we are encouraging others to be as pro-active," reads the report.
The report says Gylfie and Bayes are terrorism liaison officers and "have been trained in procedures used by terrorists (including the photographing of targets, security officers, cameras etc.) and are hypersensitive to indicators such as the behavior and evasiveness shown by Nee."
The report goes on to say that the true purpose of Nee's photography was never determined, but "it would seem a possible purpose might be to bait police officers" and that the "surreptitious" nature of his video "suggests he is more interested in litigation and making a name for himself" than following the rules.
Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor, is especially troubled by the word hypersensitive in the report.
"One would expect that they would describe the officer as professional and even sensitive to what's happening on the street. But they use the word hypersensitive. Which seems to suggest that he might see terrorism where others do not. That he's over the top in the way that he reacts to what would be conduct on the street," says Levenson.
Training Officers to Spot Photographers
Gylfie and Bayes were on patrol for "potential homeland security activity," or as it is described in LASD policy, "unusual or suspicious activity that may have a nexus to terrorism." Nevertheless, the sheriff’s department warns personnel that suspicious activity "may not have a clear nexus to terrorism," and "may not rise to the level of a crime."