Photography is a Crime? Since When?

Along with the many people, places and things that have been disappearing at a rapid pace here in our beloved City of New York; it seems our rights as citizens of the United States are disappearing too. Although this is no new news about our current society, which uses terms like “Homeland Security” in order to violate people’s privacy, it hit a bit closer to home yesterday. Well-known Greenpoint Blogger Miss. Heather of New York Shitty was stopped and questioned by the police while taking photographs of Christmas decorations!

Here is what happened in her words:

I just arrived home from one of the most infuriating experiences I have ever had in my life. Although I plan to write a tongue-in-cheek post about it after I finish this email, I want to give you a quick rundown because the implications for anyone who takes the Bill of Rights seriously are NOT good.

Today I decided to go out and take pictures. This is something I have done 2-3 times a week for two years. Today, however, is the first time I have been DETAINED BY THE POLICE for doing so. Was I trespassing? No. Was I told why I was being detained? YES. After demanding to be told THREE TIMES: someone called 311 and reported a "suspicious person" taking photographs.

Now I will be the first person to admit that the intersection of Kingsland Avenue and Herbert Street is NOT located in the nicest neighborhood in the world, but does that bar a person (and anyone who has met me can attest that I hardly look like Public Enemy #1) from walking over there and taking photographs? If you were to hear the line of questioning the police "officer" used, one would certainly think so:

P.O.: If you live in north Greenpoint, what are you doing here?
Me: Taking pictures, is that against the law?
P.O.: No.
Me: Hausman Street always goes all-out with their Christmas decorations; I just got done taking pictures of them.

My identification was pored over, recorded and shown to (who I was told) a police Lieutenant (who pulled up in an unmarked police car). Obviously I was let go without a citation (I suppose they couldn't figure out what to charge me with), but my personal information will now grace a file folder at the 94th Precinct.

I have a creeping suspicion a contractor on Kingsland made this phone call--- although my recent drubbing of Ms. Lancaster makes one wonder. Consider yourself warned.

In my opinion these cops would be an asset to the Department Buildings Violations Bureau, imagine if they used that energy to question the contractors on what is going on at the construction sites? Just this afternoon I walked by Scarano’s building on Bond Street which has signs all over it, “Workers must Wear Hard Hats, and guess what? Nobody was! Oh well, it’s their head not mine.

I guess it makes more sense to go after a woman wearing a Sanrio hat taking pictures of Christmas decorations.

But I digress, I have actually been a bit hesitant to take photos of that building myself these days as not only does the building look like a bunker, he has loud barking attack dogs on the premises and they’ve recently put up signs that there are surveillance cameras on the premises. (Who was it that the Italians allied themselves with during WW II again?)

So kids, especially you blogger types that like to take photos and do not have the benefit of a press badge, be careful out there.


DavidK. said...

That is a serious f***ed up story. It's insane that the police would do this. What? If you take photos of Xmas decorations, the terrorists win?

I think everyone should go to this intersection when Miss Heather was harassed and shutterbug the night away! I'm actually quite serious this time.

BZA said...

I wanted to post to Shitty but couldn't negotiate the comments system there, so hopefully she'll see this here.

While anything is possible, as somebody who spends A LOT of time taking pictures all over the city, it's pretty UNlikely vengeance was the motivation here. NYPD has their own agenda, & the real estate creeps-- tho' influential elsewhere-- do not really factor in. (In fact, in most cases, cops would be rather antagonistic towards developers: class war, baby, & cops are near the bottom.)

That said, NYPD has draconian quotas in the guise of "performance standards" &, combined with the post- "war on terror" horseshit, PLENTY of innocent folks are being put through the system. I'd have been just as pissed but just be thankful (for now) you weren't given a summons, which you could very well beat... if you want to take a day off & go to court.

I know more than one person who's been ticketed for "trespassing" just walking to the end of WB & GP Streets & I myself was given grief by a rent-a-cop in 212 when I was in the Marketfield alley off of Beaver. I tried to be empathetic to the low paid Latino woman just doing her job but it was still bullshit, & I made it clear by telling her I'll be happy to talk to any police officers. (It was a good thing none rolled up, hah, bc they will put you through the system just to fuck up your day. As a member of The Working Press, however, I felt alright making the challenge.)

FACT: you can stand on a public street or take pictures of ** everything **. You can stand on a subway platform & do likewise.

FACT: About a third of all cops are bone fucking stupid-- even cops will tell you this, declining standards being one big reason, along with $$$, for the horrible morale of NYPD-- so tho' it's totally illegal, they'll hassle anybody with a camera if they need to make their #.

If I was Mizz Heather, I'd perhaps make a followup call or even stop in to the 94th Precinct--


& try to get some explanation. In theory she should NOT be in any system. Also, a question: did NYPD just see if you matched the id or did they run it thru the computer to check for warrants? I don't want to 'blame the victim' here at all but in fact, the grounds for their even requesting id were VERY dubious. (But they count on most people being surprised/scared.)


Re: Scarano, the surveillance stuff is nonsense, it's just a scare tactic for thieves. We can ALL take as many pix of every lousy law breaking site we like.
If they give you any guff, tell 'em BZA sent you!

Stay strong, sisters--

WWIB photo editor

p/s: this is long but worth knowing--


Officer Murray said...

Not to make light of idiotic harrassment but this is but the teeniest and tiniest tip of the civil rights iceberg. Anybody care to guess how it this would have gone for black person, especially one standing on a Greenpoint street? Maybe the same... probably worse.

For those of you new to New York City, I will help you out with the name of thee only (known) white, unarmed person (oh, excuse me, he had a hammer) killed by NYPD in semi-recent years:

Gideon Busch.

You can look it up and if you don't know it already, ask yourselves why? The list of black people killed by NYPD is sadly much too long to type here but the case of Ousmane Zongo ought to be studied by anyone who thinks either Mike Bloomberg or Ray Kelly are that much of a step up from Giuliani.

Again, I back up Shitty and anybody else all the way but I hope this is taken as a wake up call across the often inane and highly ethnocentric "blogosphere."

Officer Murray
100 Bloggers in Law Enforcement

Lisanne McT said...

Oh I agree Officer Murray...I am aware that people of color, particularly young black men are stopped on the street and questioned for no other reason than for just existing all over our city.

One of the things I don't admire about my hood is the invisible barrier that is up between the residents of the projects and the surrounding areas. Contrary to popular belief not everyone who lives there is a drug addict or a thief.

Our society is racist and no matter how loudly people deny it, it just is. Yeah the blogosphere is overwhelming ethnocentric but whatareyagonnado? it just is.

Defeatest? Maybe.

What happened to Ms. Heather was unfortunate, I might of been a bit over the top by linking it into a conspiracy theory about developers but that's the freedom i have with da blog,, how long before street harassment turns into something more? (yeah i know more conspiracy theories!)

Peace out

Miss Heather said...

First off, I really appreciate you putting the word out about what happened to me.

Speaking as the person involved in this incident, I cannot help but think what would have happened had I NOT been white. In fact, I have thought about that A LOT.

I suppose in the scheme of things my incident was indeed "the tip of the iceberg". But that does not change the fact it was totally unacceptable--- and if airing what happened to me will force people to WAKE UP maybe something good will come out of it? I can only hope so.

Lisanne McT said...

Oh, you'll get no arguement here, whatever color you are, that WAS totally unnecessary and unacceptable.

Lots of people have read about this due to the fact that the New York Times linked it on CityRoom.

Just an update to those that do not know, to top off being stopped by the cops for taking photos of Xmas decorations, Miss. Heather also got some nasty comments on her blog by a Police Officer who was sending them from a computer located at the NYPD HEADQUARTERS in downtown Manhattan. AND he was also going by the screenname "MASKED MAN"!

How CREEPY is that?!

Our tax dollars at work (at the expense of our civil liberties!)

Vidiot said...

I had a similar incident last month -- blogged here -- and later did some research on whether one can be compelled to show ID on request from a police officer. Turns out New York State law governing these types of situations is even more restrictive (to the police) and granular than federal law . The results of my research are here, but essentially you can't be forced to show ID without "reasonable suspicion" of criminality.

Lisanne McT said...


Thanks for sharing your story and providing the fruits of your research on the matter...although "essentially you can't be forced to show ID without "reasonable suspicion" of criminality. I can just imagine the hell the cops would put one through if you didn't..in fact, these days if you don't have I.D on you that's enough for them to take you away, that is, if they view you as "suspicious"!

Can anybody say "Police State"?

Vidiot said...

That's true. I showed my ID, because given the attitude of the police, I felt reasonably sure that I would wind up in jail if I didn't. And even if they arrested me wrongly, I'd still have been arrested, which would just suck.

The two things that rankled the most from this encounter were that a.) they have my personal information from my ID, and I don't know how long they're going to have it on file or what they're going to do with it (and given the NYPD's and DHS's sterling reputations, I can't say I entirely trust them to do the right thing); and
b.) I felt like I had to choose between exercising my Constitutional rights or going to jail.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the police acted properly and in accordance with the law. They temporarily detained you and conducted a pedestrian investigation. This is provided to law enforcement based on Terry vs. Ohio case law. As you speculated in your account, police may have received information from someone that thought your activity suspicious. Blogger responses even show that terrorists are known to take photographs when selecting targets. Since the pedestrian investigation did not rise above the level of mere suspicion, the detention ended and you were free to go. There is probably an incident report (UCR coded 2700 series) on file at the local 94th precinct reflecting your detention, but not a "file folder." Most of the anti-police bloggers here would be the first ones to call 911 when they needed help. They should be more thankful and supportive of the police. How quickly we forget the 23 police officers that sacriced their lives on 911.

Vidiot said...

Anonymous, how would this qualify as a Terry stop? Terry requires "reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime." Legal behavior, such as photography, doesn't rise to the threshold of "reasonable suspicion" of criminality. Photography in and of itself is not a suspicious act -- especially photography of Christmas decorations. With your invocation of terrorists' using photography, are you seriously arguing that Miss Heather was intent on installing some Semtex among Santa's reindeer?

New York state has a "stop-and-identify" law which mandates the production of ID when asked...but only if that same "reasonable suspicion" standard has been met, making it a Terry stop or a level-three De Bour encounter. (Look at People v. De Bour for the full decision.) I'd be interested, Anonymous, in what case law you can cite to support your opinion.

And yes, I'd be the first to call 911 when I needed help. I'd do it because almost all the police do a good job and I can trust them to help me out. But I would expect that all police officers, including ones that would respond if I had to call 911, would conduct themselves in a fair, professional way and follow the laws that they have sworn to uphold.

And why bring September 11 into it? Why say that anyone's forgotten the people that lost their lives? Troll.

Anonymous said...

I brought the 23 officers that died in 911 into it because of the hostility the bloggers here show the police. Bloggers here use prfanity and anger to express themselves. And you, vidiot, cannot control yourself with insults like "troll." What were the police supposed to do when they received a radio call to investigate the person with the camera, not respond and investigate? You would know better if you had any kind of law enforcement background or training. Police are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Instead, you sound like a first year law student trying to impress yourself / steeped in the anti-police and establishment culture at whatever college/university you are going to. You just don't know the law. Professional student.

Vidiot said...

Actually, that's "amateur student", my anonymous interlocutor, as I'm not a lawyer, nor am I law student. I just did some research one day that anyone can do. I graduated from college years ago, and if you'd actually read what I'd written (instead of forming your knee-jerk response to it), you'd have noticed that I'm not exactly trying to uphold an "anti-police and establishment culture". I just want to pursue my perfectly legal hobby without harassment, intimidation, threats, or being (erroneously) told that I'm breaking the law. Should a police officer approach me if they have questions about what I'm doing? Sure. Should they ask to see or delete my pictures, should they accuse me of aiding terrorism, should they fabricate nonexistent laws out of whole cloth? Of course not, and I don't like it when the police overstep their bounds. I play by the rules, and I resent it when others don't do the same.

I can't speak for anyone else here, but well, yeah, some people here are showing hostility toward the police. Speaking for myself, my hostility toward the police is reserved for those officers who don't follow the laws that they've sworn to uphold, and those who use their great power in unwise ways or for personal gain. But I realize that this is a minority of all police -- I've got cops in my family -- and that most cops are decent people who do a tough job, and do it well, for far too little money. My appreciation goes out to the ones who play by the rules...that is, most of them.

and I can't control myself with insults like "troll"? Please. That's the worst thing I could've thought up? Nope: I called you a troll because you brought 9/11 into an unrelated discussion in a mispaced bid for sympathy. It seems odd to me that you condemn "the bloggers" who "use profanity and anger to express themselves" and then talk about "anti-establishment culture", saying "you just don't know the law."

I cannot fail to notice that you chose to respond to me but never answered some of my questions:
--how did the incident in question qualify as a Terry stop, and what met the standard of "reasonable suspicion" of criminality? And, since you've told me that "you just don't know the law": please edify me. Is my reading of Terry v. Ohio and People v. De Bour incorrect? Is there case law that supersedes them? You can't throw that out without backing up your words in some way and expect me to take it on faith.

And do I think that the police shouldn't have investigated? You're busily constructing a straw man. If the police got a call from someone upset that they saw a photographer, they should investigate...but keep clearly in mind that photography is in itself not a hostile or suspicious act. Should the police have detained someone absent reasonable suspicion that they have committed, are committing, or will commit a crime? No -- that would be illegal. And should the police officer have asked Miss Heather why she had the temerity to LEAVE HER NEIGHBORHOOD? ("If you live in north Greenpoint, what are you doing here?") No, unless the NYPD's patrol manual says that the non-suspicious photographers are the ones that stick to their own zip code.


Vidiot said...

Actually, let me amend my comment. I had said that some here seemed to exercise anti-police sentiment -- I don't see that in this comments section. (I've seen some rhetoric that I wouldn't endorse in some other blogs that have covered Miss Heather's story, but not here.)

Lisanne McT said...

Thanks for ammending that..although I really don't censor here, I do use the comment moderation thingee should a majorly offensive comment appear (and also to keep out spammers trying to sell things!) and in the whole time I've had the blog that has happened only once, where someone made a very creepy personal attack on me (Lisanne McT aka FIB)..I am lucky that my commenters usually state their opinions intellligently, whether I agree with them or not.

For the record, I am not anti-pollice, photography is not a crime and Miss. Heather situation was handled badly.

Miss Heather said...

Just to set the record straight, Vidiot.

I was "sticking to my own zip code" when I was (in all likelihood, ILLEGALLY) detained: 11222.