Cameras vs. LAPD: Was A Photographer Interfering or Just Taking Pictures?
Shawn Nee is an award winning street and documentary photographer living in Hollywood, California. He says that on June 2, 2013, his right to take photos under the First Amendment was violated when the Los Angeles Police Department officers detained him while working in Hollywood. Nee wears multiple body cameras on his person when he shoots photos in public and provided an edited version of June 2nd's events exclusively to Reason TV.
"People have the right to take pictures in a public space and that includes photographing [police]," says Nee. "People have the right to know what goes on in their communities and in public."
Nee was standing on a residential sidewalk taking pictures of a man he had been photographing for years when LAPD officers showed up about 90 feet away to investigate a domestic dispute. Nee took photos of the dispute from behind two chain link fences when he was approached by an officer. The transcript was as follows:
OFFICER: What's your name?
NEE: Am I being detained, sir?
OFFICER: How am I detaining you if I've got a fence between me? You want me to come around and detain you?
NEE: Why would I be detained, sir?
OFFICER: I'm not detaining you, I'm asking you a question. What's your name?
NEE: I'm not required to answer that question, sir.
Reason TV showed the video to Andy Neiman, the officer-in-charge at the Media Relations Section at the LAPD. He said he could not comment on the video specically but said of individuals taking pictures, "If their physical proximity to the investigating officers becomes interfering where an officer has to stop what they're doing to admonish that individual that they're too close or could you stand back because they are distracting from the officer's business, then that's where it becomes an issue."
But Nee says he was so far away from the investigation that the officers had to walk down a 60 yard driveway, enter their squad car, and drive to the location where he was taking photographs around the corner from the initial investigation just to detaine him. This is the conversation that happened once they got there:
OFFICER: Could you put your camera down for me?
NEE: Am I being detained, sir?
NEE: For what purpose, sir?
OFFICER: Put your camer down.
NEE: Why am I being detained, sir?
OFFICER: For interviewing … interfering with a police investigation.
NEE: How was I doing that, sir?
Later, a supervisor, identified as Sergent Rudy V. Vidal showed up and interacted with Nee:
NEE: My understanding is that I was detained for taking photos in a public space.
VIDAL: When it interferes with the job of police then it becomes a problem. At that point, you no longer have that freedom to go ahead and take your pictures.
Sergent Vidal was named as a "problem officer" by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Christopher Commission) in the early 1990s, as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 1995. The Commission named 44 officers with "six or more complaints of excessive force or improper tactics between 1986 and 1990."
Nee is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department along with two other photographers and is represented in that case by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Nee has been published by National Public Radio, F8 magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and blogs at boywithagrenade.org.
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Detrick and Zach Weissmuller.
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Nee has posted his version of events captured by his video cameras to his YouTube site: