LA County Sheriffs Hassle Photographer, Trample Constitution, Get Lauded by Bosses

Disturbing new information in the war on photography.


Subway stop at Hollywood and Western in Hollywood, Calif.

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

Internal Affairs Bureau Investigative Report

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."

"There are individuals that are taking photographs and are filming security sites for ill deeds, for terrorist activities," says senior media adviser for the LASD Steve Whitmore. "And so we are very vigilant about making sure that that is not happening."

Hollywood Blvd. sign.

The training the deputies received may have been similar to an August 2010 Deviation Assessment and Response Training (DART) instructor's guide used by the department to train officers who patrol the transportation hubs in Los Angeles. The guide lists a number "surveillance indicators" officers should be aware of, including:

Picture taking or video recording of or around your post, especially when coupled with high magnification lenses. Note-taking at non-tourist locations. Picture taking alone is not a suspicious activity unless the pictures are of railroad tracks, emergency exits, access roads, street signs, bus terminals, and emergency personnel during an emergency or a drill.

The FBI's "Hit List"

Even though the deputies couldn't find any reason to arrest Nee,

Joint Regional Intelligence Center

Gylfie did end up submitting Nee's name to the FBI. He submitted it through a suspicious activity report to the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center that pulls together information from a variety of law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering entities. Making that sort of report is in like with department policy.

"That raises concerns that people who are engaged not only in lawful activity but in constitutionally protected expression are in this database where they are identified as engaging in activity that may have a link to terrorism," says Bibring.

The LASD's Whitmore stresses that the department believes in protecting the constitutional rights of photographers but offered this caveat: "If we have probable cause, we are going to investigate that to protect the public. And most of the time, I submit to you: We're going to be right."

The ACLU of Northern California recently released suspicious activity report on Nee, along with over a hundred reports originating from LASD that have to do with cameras. Most record innocuous behavior, says Bibring, like taking photos of a building, a subway, or the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.

"If looking for terrorists is like looking for a needle in a haystack, we seem to be adding not just more hay to the haystack but more and more haystacks of information everyday," says Bibring.

The United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a report on fusion centers in late 2012 that supports Bibring's characterization. After looking at 13 months of material, the committee reported:

The Subcommittee investigation found that DHS-assigned detailees to the fusion centers forwarded "intelligence" of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.

Whitmore provided Reason TV with a draft of a new photography policy. The draft document, which he says Sheriff Lee Baca supports, champions First Amendment but is skimpy at best on details about the Fourth Amendment rights of photographers.

Are Terrorists Everywhere?

"Everybody is weary of [the] 'where is the terrorism?' [mentality]," says Levenson. [But] local law enforcement [doesn't] want to be the one who's caught missing something."

The reason local law enforcement are looking for potential terrorist activity is thanks to the 2001 PATRIOT Act. The act expanded the powers of federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency to gather intelligence but also increased the powers of local beat cops to gather intelligence. Local police have been empowered to become the eyes and ears of the feds via suspicious activity reporting to fusion centers.

Levenson says that the reaction by local law enforcement agencies has generally gone too far.

"The 9/11 mentality - that there are terrorists everywhere - could intrude on everyone's constitutional rights," she says. "I don't think anyone wants to go in that direction 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 hay stack."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from March 2013, as of November 2012, more than 14,200 local law enforcement agencies in 46 states, plus the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories, had the ability to share suspicious activity reports with 74 fusion centers.

About 10 minutes.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Tracy Oppenheimer, Zach Weissmuller, Alex Manning and Detrick. Graphics and associate producing by Will Neff.

Subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel and get automatic notifications when new videos go live.

NEXT: Matt Welch Discusses Health Care on CNBC's Kudlow Report

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Terrorists use bombs, not cameras. The cops don't have a leg to stand on.


    1. Terrorists often take pictures of places they plan to attack so they can study the layout, where the guards are, etc.

      So anyone taking a picture of anything must be treated a terrorist scouting out a target until they prove their innocence to the satisfaction of law enforcement.

      1. and god help them if they make any furtive movements

      2. The question we need to be concerned with is the probability that someone is a terrorist given that they are taking a picture. That probability is essentially zero.

        The probability that someone is taking a picture given that they are a terrorist is irrelevant. It can be 100% and it still wouldn't justify any stops.

        By analogy, just because almost all gun homicides are committed by males doesn't mean that we have reasonable suspicion that every male is a gun toting homicidal maniac.

      3. Since when? Name one terrorist plot that wasn't an FBI sting that involved photography.

  2. There are simply too many things in this article to comment on. The reports, the guidelines, the quotes. It is simply chilling.

  3. From my youth i vaguely remember something about innocent until proven guilty in a court of law tried by a jury of your peers, but you live in Califarabia by choice dolt. Take your tax dollars and go to a more liberty friendly state

  4. Well, terrorists ARE everywhere. But they wear these distinctive blue uniforms, so its possible to avoid them.

    Oh, you meant NON-GOVERNMENTAL terrorists.

  5. For work I've had to take some anti-terrorist training, and the story is accurate.

    Anyone with a camera should be treated with suspicion because they could be scouting for an attack.
    Anyone writing things down should be treated with suspicion because they could be making observations to be used for planning an attack.
    Anyone loitering should be treated with suspicion because they could be watching for patters that could be exploited in an attack.
    Heck, everyone who does not work for the government should be treated with suspicion since they are a potential terrorist.

    Basically, the government has decided that every single one of us is a terrorist until we prove otherwise, and even then we're still to be treated with suspicion.

    1. Terrorism is a felony. You can make a citizen's arrest for a felony in every state in the union except North Carolina.

      If photography is, in and of itself, sufficient evidence of terrorist activities to make an arrest, then a citizen could lawfully make a citizen's arrest of a cop because he has a body camera or a dash camera.

  6. Clearly this is a case of "let's fuck with that guy, I don't like the way he looks".

  7. my roomate's mom makes $73 an hour on the computer. She has been unemployed for seven months but last month her pay was $18333 just working on the computer for a few hours. pop over to this website

  8. 1. Am I free to leave?
    2. If I am not free to leave, I am not answering any questions without my attorney present.
    3. No, I do not consent to any searches.

    1. "Hey Joe, did you see that? He took a swing at me..."

  9. The required equipment in this story is his body cam, hopefully downloading via Bambuser to the cloud.

  10. like Walter explained I am taken by surprise that a single mom able to profit $5487 in four weeks on the internet. visit their website

  11. In any confrontation with cops, while it might start as a legitimate investigation, the moment a cop feels his total authority is challenged, it immediately degenerates into a contest where the cop will try to teach the mere citizen a lesson in who's boss.

    From that moment forward, it has nothing to do with terrorist threats, fighting crime, preserving order, or ensuring public safety. It has to do with the fact that cops don't understand that they don't have unlimited authority. And the reason they don't understand that is because whenever they exercise powers they don't have, there are zero consequences.

    The one thing this isn't is some kind of challenge to a cop's capacity to do his job. He ceased doing his job the moment his actions became dictated by anger rather than the need to complete the simple job-related task of determining whether a crime was being committed.

    1. Like Cartman says: "Respect mah Authoritah"

  12. "suggests he is more interested in litigation and making a name for himself" than following the rules.

    What are the rules for taking photographs in public?

  13. Police aren't allowed to suspect anyone who looks to be of Mexican descent and who only speaks Spanish of being an illegal non-citizen.

    Using the same logic I guess the police are not allowed to be suspicious of someone wearing a burqa and taking photographs of the same highway; that would be racist.

  14. Google is paying 80$ per hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. Yesterday I bought a top of the range Lancia after having made $9458 this month. Its the most-financialy rewarding I've had. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don't check it out

  15. Apparently the ghosts of Ed Davis and Darryl Gates continue to loom large in the Southland...

  16. I'm not surprised that the cop did that; cops violate the 4th and 1st amendment all the time. What shocks me is that the IA report applauds it. Where do you go from there? Try to get the feds involved? Good luck with that.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.