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News & Insight

NYPD Chief Says Photographing & Recording Police Is Not A Crime

By Kishore Sawh on August 11th 2014


Image courtesy of Pete Stewart via Wikicommons

The New York Police Department has given word to its officers in an internal memo on the rights of photographers and videographers. That word is not ‘cut.’ Finally, those in the New York area can operate their recording equipment with less fear of being persecuted wrongfully.

In what appears to be a reminder and clarification to officers who may be more ‘camera-shy,’ by the office of the chief of the department, police were told,

Members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactionsIntentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment…

The memo does further state, however, that this isn’t a carte blanche for photographers and snap happy tourists. If any of the aforementioned were to “interfere with police operations” their First Amendment Right would not stop police from taking some form of action.


That this was done by possibly the most famous police department in the country, and by some measure, the world, is a good thing. If this was some obscure department in a two stop-light town in the middle of Indiana, the message it would send wouldn’t quite be the same. It’s a step in the right direction, but the question is, is it a big enough step?

[REWIND: A Major Lawsuit Is On To Defend The Right To Take Pictures In Public]

I said a while back that it seems that in the eyes of the government, the difference between ‘terrorist’ and ‘tourist’ stop at the spelling. And that ‘photographer’ is just a different way to spell ‘criminal.’ The gravity of this mindset for the individual is severe, as it seems it’s so easy now to be blacklisted for even photographing natural gas tanks (see link above).

The memo would appear initially to be a huge step in doing away with this mindset and how police/photographer interactions are dealt with. However, “Interfere with police operations” as quoted from the memo by the NY Daily News, is a phrase bathed in ambiguity and surely up for broad interpretation. This surely will be the crux of the memo as it will likely be the point that gets repeatedly brought up during discussions regarding future altercations. And there will be future altercations, hopefully just less.

We’ve covered numerous instances of unjust police interactions with photographers in the past, and those instances are merely a few grains of sand from what is a beach of occasions. I think what will be interesting to see is the measurable effect this memo has. Over the next year, close metrics should be monitored and compared to prior years to see if there was a change. It would also be interesting to see if this spawns any other police departments to do the same. The age of accountability and monitoring has been around for citizens, and hopefully now Police will be subject to the same.

Sources: NY Daily News, PetaPixel, WikiCommons (Image)

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Austin Swenson

    I think that this is both good and bad is different ways; On the one hand, it provides evidence of excessive force that police need to be accountable for, but on the other hand, being a civil servant really can’t be easy when you have everyone on their iphone recording you and getting in the way. I saw a video where a woman police officer threatened to smash a camera that a guy was following her around with and then he followed her some more and taunted her, and I think she did it out of fear because the guy was intimidating. If I had some guy following me everywhere insulting and taunting me with a camera, I’d probably go nuts too.

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      There’s an unfortunate group of people with cameras, and I don’t want to call them photographers, who feel it’s their duty to follow the police and push their first amendment rights in the faces of cops. It’s people like this who make it harder for the rest of us , just out shooting our regular work and give real photographers a bad name.

      But this is separate from photographing a real police incident, like in Staten Island when the guy was put into a choke hold, which definitely has a need.

      Police never know what to expect in any situation. With people hanging around, that’s just one more thing the police have to keep track of. Police will give you respect when you give them respect.

      As I posted above, all this week I’ve been surrounded by police dealing with the issues in Ferguson. I have no problem approaching them with a smile and a friendly greeting. I’ve gotten into conversations with them about my gear, because I’m using Fuji X cameras and they’re used to seeing the Canon’s everyone else has. But yesterday I saw a guy in a van with a “report a cop” type sign on his vehicle with a video camera focused on the police. Personally I like my approach better.

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  2. Amanda Jehle

    Yes, photographing/videoing the police is not illegal. However, I completely understand why cops don’t like it. First, there’s always a chance that some photographs/videos posted on the web could compromise an on-going investigation (esp if there is audio with the video). Second, every picture has context & unfortunately, not everyone is honest about that context. I had a very close friend videoed putting a woman on the ground & in handcuffs at a DUI stop. You could see the fury on his face, but he never laid a hand on her other than to cuff her. What the “videographer” didn’t post, was that she spit in his face & took a swing at him prior to the handcuffing. He was sued for excessive force; it was his word against hers about the assault. After his attorney subpoenaed the ENTIRE video, the suite was dismissed, but he & his family still had to deal with the fall-out of a lying-by-omission video. So yes, I completely understand officers’ dislike being photographed/videoed.
    Think about it this way… how many of you are parents? Would you like it if some random stranger was videoing or photographing you & your 2-year-old while he/she was throwing an epic tantrum in public. Yep, I’ve been that Mom who’s had to haul a 2-year-old kicking & screaming out of a store to have a time-out & settle down so I could finish my grocery shopping. Was I doing anything wrong? Nope. Would it have made me angry if someone was photographing/videoing this scene? Absolutely. Would I have considered telling random stranger to put his camera somewhere unpleasant? Probably. Then, consider how you would feel if that video was then posted on YouTube.
    I think there needs to be mutual respect there & most of the time there’s not, on either side. Cops are very aware that he who holds the camera gets to do the editing…

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  3. Steven Pellegrino

    I don’t know if St. Louis, where I am located, has a more tolerant police department than other cities or if the police in other cities are just really paranoid. I shoot in public almost everyday, street, urban landscape, documentary. I shoot bridges along the Mississippi River, around The Federal Reserve in downtown St. Louis, the train system and police officers. I have never had one incident with police and in fact the only “incident” I ever had was a security guard from a building who came out and asked if I was a photographer.

    The past couple of days in the area of St. Louis where I live has been explosive when a white cop shot killed an unarmed black teen on Saturday. Cops are everywhere and I’ve been photographing them and with all the tension due to riots & demonstrations, long hours, being yelled out and more, I haven’t had one cop give me any grief about being photographed.

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    • Eric Mazzone

      The killing is a tragedy, but the idiots response out there, the constant chanting of “kill the police” is WAY out of line, and these fools have lost all credibility not to mention my sympathy!

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