War on Cameras

NYPD Has It Backwards on Photography

Happy to film the public, New York cops don't like it when the tables turn

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The day after police evicted Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park last fall, I had some trouble deciphering exactly what had happened. Police had corralled journalists into a "press pen" removed from the park itself, and arrested at least ten people for attempting to take photos or video. When I visited Zuccotti during the following days and weeks to see for myself what was happening, I could only enter through a single access point, guarded by police officers who often filmed me as I walked in. Why could police arrest people for taking video footage of them, and then turn the cameras on those same people for engaging in lawful activity in a public space?

The answer, of course, is that they couldn't—not legally, at least. Under the First Amendment, Americans have the right to observe and record members of the police force in the public discharge of their duties. Conversely, the NYPD's right to conduct photo and video surveillance on citizens engaging in lawful protest is limited, with very few exceptions, to circumstances in which "it reasonably appears that unlawful conduct is about to occur, is occurring, or has occurred."