Los Angeles

Harassed for Taking Photos

When cops can't tell a photographer from a terrorist

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Shawn Nee
Paul Detrick

In October 2009 Shawn Nee, an award-winning photographer, was stopped by officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) while taking pictures of turnstiles in the L.A. subway. According to the officers, Nee was engaged in "suspicious terrorist activity."

"I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al Qaeda to sell these pictures to them for a terrorist purpose," LASD Deputy Richard Gylfie told Nee, according to footage shot by a body camera Nee wears while working. Gylfie and his partner, Deputy Roberto Bayes, held Nee's hands behind his back, searched his pockets, and conducted a check to see if there were any outstanding warrants for his arrest. At one point the footage shows Gylfie telling Nee he would put him on "the FBI's hit list" if he didn't answer his questions.

"On one level you're thinking, is this really happening?" says Nee. "On another level you're thinking, this shouldn't be happening."

This sort of encounter, in which local cops harass ordinary citizens engaged in constitutionally protected behavior, has become disturbingly frequent in cities nationwide, largely because federal anti-terrorism funding has made local law enforcement agencies major participants in the War on Terror. The idea is that cops are particularly well situated to be the eyes and ears that will halt the next attack before it happens. But local police departments often lack the oversight and safeguards that could protect citizens from abuse.

Nee was not arrested or charged back in 2009, and the incident would not have had any legal ramifications if he had not filed a complaint with the LASD arguing that the officers violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights. An internal affairs investigation absolved Gylfie and Bayes of any wrongdoing; indeed, it applauded their actions. The LASD's official report on the incident calls the officers' actions "laudable" and praises their "vigilance," adding that they, "are encouraging others to be as pro-active."

Civil libertarians disagree. "Photography is not a crime; it's artistic expression," says Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, who is representing Nee in his lawsuit against the LASD, along with two other photographers who experienced similar encounters. "There was no reason to believe that just because he was taking photographs he was engaged in any kind of criminal or terrorist activity."

That's not how Deputy Gylfie saw it. The ACLU discovered that Gylfie had submitted a suspicious activity report on Nee with the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a "fusion center" that collects and shares data between the LASD, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI. Because Nee's information was submitted to the fusion center, it was available for the FBI to review and possibly add to its eGuardian database, which compiles terrorism-related information from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies.

"This raises concerns that people who are engaged not only in lawful activity but in constitutionally protected expression are being added to this database, and we're not sure what results that may lead to," says Bibring. "What happens when that individual is stopped for a traffic violation? What happens to that individual when he tries to fly in and out of the country?"

The ACLU obtained Nee's suspicious activity report, along with reports on more than 100 incidents related to public photography that have been filed by the LASD with the L.A. Joint Regional Intelligence Center. Most of these reports document incidents in which individuals are caught snapping photos of Los Angeles-its buildings, its subways, the skyline.

Why are officers preoccupied with harassing people guilty of nothing more than an interest in the city's iconography? A 2010 LASD instructor's guide suggests that they're just following directions. Used by the department to train officers who patrol transportation hubs in Los Angeles, the guide lists "surveillance indicators" officers should be aware of, including activities as benign as photography with "high-magnification lenses" and taking pictures of railroad tracks, bus terminals, and street signs. The guide was developed in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"The 9/11 mentality that there are terrorists everywhere has the potential to intrude on everybody's constitutional rights," says Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor. "And I don't even think it's effective law enforcement. You can end up getting so much information that most of it is not useful and you're missing the needle in the haystack."

Nee is waiting for his day in court. He is seeking damages as well as a change in LASD policy regarding the detention, interrogation, and harassment of individuals guilty of nothing more than snapping photos. The lawsuit also seeks to prevent LASD officers from arbitrarily prohibiting photography in public places.

"Eventually everything is going to be suspicious," says Nee. "And that's not the world we want to live in."

See a video version of this story here.

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  1. That’s right. Go to the government to ask the government to not to be so governmenty. It’ll all work out.

    1. Did you get a permit for that protest?

    2. I absolutely love this program, it’s actualy the most financially rewarding I’ve ever had. You can work where ever, when ever, and as much as you want. Make $100 in a day, pretty cool!! I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. Linked here http://www.Buzz95.com

  2. “Eventually everything is going to be suspicious,” says Nee. “And that’s not the world we want to live in.”

    I’ve had to sit through some anti-terrorism training, and it’s a bunch of bullshit.

    If you see someone taking pictures, call the cops.

    If you see someone loitering, call the cops.

    If you see someone taking notes, call the cops.

    If you see someone talking to strangers, call the cops.

    If you see anything out of the ordinary in any way, call the cops.

    Everyone is a terrorist until they prove they are not.

    1. I had a job doing all of those things, looking all suspicious and tresspass-y. We had flamboyant yellow vests and hard hats, so I guess everything looked normal, like nobody could ever just buy or steal those items.

      1. The Metro employees park for free in the metered lot at the station in my neighborhood. As far as I can tell, the only things they have to show to not get towed are their neon canvas vests that they display on their dashboards. I’ve often thought how easy it would be to get one for myself, glue a WMATA patch on it and leave it in my windshield.

        Of course, I’m not interested in risking the $150+ towing fee to find out…

    2. Oh, it was in the middle of a state capital, next to the capitol, too.

    3. Fucking architecture students do the first four of those things whenever they’re sent to get site information for a project.

  3. I still can’t quite figure out how photos of things that are in plain view in public are useful to terrorists.

    1. They government gets all their ideas from movies. There is always a covert recon before a big job. The guidelines should say look for the guy wearing sunglasses and talking into his sleeve.

      1. No, those guys are the government. Or are they?

        1. We are all the government so yes?no? I don’t know anymore.
          /cries into glass of rye.

    2. If you had taken anti-terrorism training, you would know that the only possible reason to take pictures of buildings is to examine them later to find weak points for a terrorist attack. They take the pictures, and then elaborately lay them out in a basement filled with AK47s and RPGs while they huddle closely, speaking in hushed accented voices. The next step is to loiter around the building, looking for patterns such as when shifts start. That way they can slip into the building with the crowd. Once inside they kill everyone in the building, steal all the classified information, and slip away undetected. And it all starts with pictures. Sick the cops on anyone taking pictures and you just might stop the next terrorist attack.

      This is what they really believe.

      1. Don’t forget the single bare (incandescent!!!!111!!one!!!) bulb swinging from the ceiling, as a faucet drips somewhere nearby.

        1. I see you’ve had to sit through the same video.

        2. They also walk away, slowly, without flinching, from the explosion they just detonated, a nigh-imperceptible smile crossing their face.

          1. I thought they blew themselves up.

            Tough to walk away when you are in fragments.

            1. If you walk away slowly and survive, it means God wants you to blow up something else.

      2. Anybody with half a brain would analyze the building blueprints, not pictu….Don’t taze me bro!

    3. There was a story in the WaPo, IIRC, back in the early weeks after 9/11/01 where some reporter type was being questioned about looking at and photographing a “silver box” on the Mall in DC. That story was all over the place then. What happened in the past 13 years?

    4. I still can’t quite figure out how photos of things that are in plain view in public are useful to terrorists.

      Important milestones and cherished memories, same as the rest of us.

  4. You know what terrorist always do in movies? Take pictures of their target [MONTAGE!]
    You know what terrorist don’t do in real life? Take pictures of their targets.

    1. Ummm. And you know this how?

      1. Because the terrorists attacks which *were* foiled (*after* being abetted by the FBI) were being planned and carried out by people who weren’t smart enough to think about doing that.

        1. I thought the FBI agent provocateurs did the planning.

      2. He’s right. I’m a terrorist. I have an ICBM. In my pants.

        1. It looked more like a golfer’s pencil.

          1. That’s the compact version.

  5. Turnstiles aren’t for taking pictures of, they’re for jumping over.

    1. Or slamming your opponent’s head into.

    2. Sorry, I thought you said turnbuckle not turnstile.

  6. “I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al Qaeda to sell these pictures to them for a terrorist purpose,”

    The answer to ridiculous questions is always an obnoxious “Yeeessss”.

    1. With a shit eating grin.

    2. The answer to ridiculous questions is always an obnoxious “Yeeessss”.

      Sure. If you want to get beaten to death.

    3. ‘When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say, “YES!”‘

      It would be awesome to totally play out the role;

      “Is there an interrogation room where we could do this? They say they’ve got my family and they won’t release them until I get these pictures of the turnstiles for them. I couldn’t figure out how to get out how to foil their plan without endangering my family, but now that you’ve stepped in, I won’t have to help the terrorists and you’ll get my son back safely. You will get my family back safely, right?”

      I could go on about cops shooting until they run out of bullets and then they start snapping necks until they get to the mastermind of the whole thing whom they must kill with the nearest harpoon gun or Maverick missile, but I assume they’ll have tazed me long before then.

  7. The ACLU obtained Nee’s suspicious activity report, along with reports on more than 100 incidents related to public photography that have been filed by the LASD with the L.A. Joint Regional Intelligence Center.

    This right here is why this system will never catch a terrorist: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

  8. According to the officers, Nee was engaged in “suspicious terrorist activity.”

    We’re all terrorists, now.

  9. Tangential: PINAC hires “don’t tase me, bro” dude as a staff writer.

    PINAC has been incredibly busy these days. You would think all the lawsuits and dismissals of charges against these people would slow the tide of police harassment of photographers. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

    1. Holy hell. For a minute I thought you meant the Project for a New American Century. I was about to get all Alex Jones. Remember the question he asked?

  10. The idea is that cops are particularly well situated to be the eyes and ears that will halt the next attack before it happens.

    Even if this on the surface reasonable belief were true, local law enforcement generally don’t possess the training or disposition for anti-terrorism work. They’re a blunt instrument who only understand from this federal mandate that they get to be even weightier (no pun intended) and blunter.

    They never have a firm grasp on the laws they’re already tasked with applying, so adding new responsibilities only overwhelms them to the point of lashing out at any activity they can. And they do that, at best, to cover themselves in the unlikely event of stumbling across the beginnings of a terrorist plot, or, at worst (and more likely), because they get to exercise authority.

  11. “Eventually everything is going to be suspicious,” says Nee. “And that’s not the world we want to live in.”

    It is, however, the world the police want to live in.

    1. Then we should make them live in it – as the people not allowed to do nothin’

      1. I say we send all of those pigs to Mars.

        1. The bacteria in their dead bodies would serve as the first steps towards terraformation of the planet. What better use could we have for these thugs than to have their corpses litter alien landscapes?

          1. Yeah, but in 4 billion years you’ll have a flourishing ecosystem evolved from *that*.

            1. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to ours those of the beasts that perish, intellects stunted and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twenty-first century came the great disillusionment.

              With apologies to H.G. Wells.

  12. If we were willing to profile young Islamic men who associate with Jihadist organizations it wouldn’t be tempting to grasp at straws. Since we aren’t willing to focus our suspicions on a narrow demographic with a track record of trouble, we end up violating EVERYBODY’s civil rights.

    And I can’t help but suspect that a lot of the outrage expressed by people at the idea that we should take a close and cold eyed look at everyone who associates with Radical Islamic Trash-Talk is based on an uncomfortable awareness of just how much of the Fashionable Left has allowed itself to be used by terrorist groups.

    1. All cultures are equal! Don’t ya know? Even the ones who blatantly disregard and violate every facet of human dignity that we lefty’s claim to support.

      1. All cultures are equal except ours

        FTFY

  13. At one point the footage shows Gylfie telling Nee he would put him on “the FBI’s hit list” if he didn’t answer his questions.

    This is why I never get off easy with authoritarians with a badge. Their smug little comments would prompt me to say something like; “Put yourself on a dildo and fuck yourself, Officer.”

    1. “Did you see that, Joe? He took a swing at me!”

      *beats Free Society to death*

    2. Stop resisting! Stop resisting! Stop resisting!

      1. “Don’t tase me, bro pig.”

    3. I would hope I’d be recording so I could ask “Hit List?” You mean like a hit, with a hit man, like a murder?

      See if he could ever be charged with making terroristic threats. Yeah right.

  14. I wonder what it must have been like in, say, Germany to watch the country become a police state – or wherever.
    It’s not like you wake up one morning from Utopia and find yourself in North Korea or Nazi Germany and say – “Oh, shit! We’re in a police state.” Or one morning you discover your in a black and white pre-ww2 movie.
    I’d love to read a description of how society goes from (basically) free to totalitarian over time. Maybe then the useful idiots we share an economy with might stop to question just how much power to let government seize. Or maybe not.
    They must think that either it rolls in like Alien Visitors or the Communists into Hungary; or they’re just thinking ‘Not In America’.

    1. I wonder what it must have been like in, say, Germany to watch the country become a police state – or wherever.

      No need to wonder. It’s happening right before your eyes.

      1. There’s a strong case to be made that we are already there, living in the most progressive police state in the world.

    2. It’s a slow creep. Anyone who questions “the little things”, like a simple gun registry or not being able to photograph certain “sensitive” areas is laughed off as paranoid. “It’s only just in these very specific areas”, they say. “It will be very tightly monitored for abuse” they say. And all the while telling us how silly and paranoid we are.

      1. Hey, save it for 4/9ths of the Supreme Court.

    3. I think for a lot of people, they really DO just wake up one morning to discover they live in a police state. That’s usually because the flash bangs just went off and some asshole has a boot on their back with a gun on their head.

      1. This has to be true in a lot of cases. Look at those Occupy Wall Street idiots who were just surprised as hell to find themselves arrested/harassed/beaten. If you vote for oppressive laws you think will only apply to other people, it’s a big surprise when it turns out they apply to you as well.

        1. everyone without a badge or electoral success that is.

    4. You might want to start with William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” He was there, as a reporter, during Hitler’s rise. Scapegoats for all the country’s troubles, false flag events like burning the Reichstag, etc.

      1. I will.
        Poll Question:
        “If you know the plane was going down, would you – watch every second until the end, or close your eyes and imagine big tits (fill in preference)?”

    5. For an actual police state in the US, I think it would take a dire economic collapse like in Germany. That would be the best way to unite people around a dictator.

      1. They’re working on it.

  15. I’d love to read a description of how society goes from (basically) free to totalitarian over time.

    Something something trade something for something deserve something.

  16. Pro-Tip
    The best way to get around all those pesky LEO’s is to pull a Frank W. Abagnale. o not dress like an art student, because right away you just set yourself up. Put on a suit, tie, clean shoes(not dress shoes though), an American flag pin, and make yourself one of those laminated badges that says you a reporter for some small paper, magazine, whatever.
    You would be surprised how well it works. =)

    1. You shouldn’t have to appeal to the piggies to go about your business. That’s the whole point of freedom.

      1. True, but if you can’t beat them, outsmart them. I’m the type of fox that takes pleasure in outwitting the hounds.

        1. This is where we differ in our approach anti-authoritarianism. I’d sooner spit in their face.

          1. I have no problems with your approach Free Society. 🙂

  17. they really DO just wake up one morning to discover they live in a police state.

    Yes, like that stupid bitch Emily Miller who “gets it” on guns, but wrote a revolting “Authoritarianism is Good when the Boot is on the Neck of People I Don’t like” pro drug war editorial recently.

    “How was I to know they’d come after ME, after they got done oppressing THEM? It’s just not fair.”

  18. [An internal affairs investigation absolved Gylfie and Bayes of any wrongdoing; indeed, it applauded their actions. ]

    All you really need to know.

  19. Well, at first I was thinking that the US is becoming far too much like Nazi Germany, but then I read this part-

    “Why are officers preoccupied with harassing people guilty of nothing more than an interest in the city’s iconography? A 2010 LASD instructor’s guide suggests that they’re just following directions.”

    They were just following orders? Well, that’s OK then…

    1. “You have to understand, these people were simply following orders.” – Manson Family defense

      You mean it doesn’t work both ways? Huh.

  20. bin Laden won.

  21. I’m that guy that lugs around a dSLR with a 400mm lens whenever I go anywhere interesting. The only cop that’s ever asked me about it just wanted to hold it and look through the lens. I’m just lucky, I guess.

    1. You didn’t let him touch it, did you? You could have gotten pink eye.

  22. So it’s illegal to take still pictures of something the government is already video surveilling 24/7?

    Seems like if an actual terrorist did something based on actually taking pictures, the police would be able to easily identify the picture taker if need be.

    1. Or just find a way to access the video surveillance feed.

  23. Thomas Anthony Guerriero, the CEO of Oxford City (Stock Symbol:OXFC) stated, “This is a clear sign of the times. Clearly an amendment in the profiling process should be made.” Posted By: The Office of Thomas Anthony Guerriero (www.thomasanthonyguerriero.com) Distributed By: Sacora McNair Administrative Director To Thomas Guerriero (www.thomasguerriero.com)

  24. I have the strangest sense of Deja Vu, almost like I’ve read this exact same story on this site before…

  25. Call me crazy…I don’t care if you’re a cop or not, but if you threaten my life–I’m going to defend myself.
    That is my right.

    1. Sounds like a terroristic threat to me.

  26. LASD Deputy Richard Gylfie told Nee, according to footage shot by a body camera

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