In a startling show of restraint, a pair of NYPD officers decided to deescalate a confrontation with a photographer who angrily refused to submit to a bag search last week. Gadfly and frequent NYPD videographer Shawn Thomas documented the brief encounter with his cell phone; he tells us it happened last Thursday afternoon, in Fort Greene.
According to Thomas, the video was taken after he spent the day following various cops who were on what Thomas considers a "binge"—making many minor arrests in succession, within a contained geographic area. "I was going around recording them," he said. Twenty minutes after Thomas documented a littering ticket, two officers approached him.
One of the officers repeatedly asked to see the contents of Thomas's bag. Thomas refused, adding that the officers should "honor their fucking oath" and only search him with probable cause. After some argument, Thomas angrily directed a racial slur at one of the cops and walked away cursing, without interference. (Using profanity in front of police officers is also not a crime.)
On Saturday morning, Thomas uploaded a short cut of the incident to YouTube. In the 7 second version, first the cop on the left says, "Sir, what you got in that bag?" To which Thomas replies, "None of your fuckin' business: That's what I got in the bag." The cop immediately says "All right" and turns away. For good measure Thomas adds, "Honor your oath, scumbag."
A caption to the video on Thomas's YouTube page elaborates:
Common scene: You're walking down the street and the NYPD pulls up and jumps out. "What's that?", "Can I see some I.D.", and you are left felling powerless and abused.
Stand up, Flex Your Rights. Tell that cop to Fuck-Off!
They are only interested in numbers, not justice, not fighting crime.
Call the Scumbags out, tell them to fuck off.
AlterNet posited, "This just may be the fastest we have ever seen a cop get shut down."
However, Thomas tells us he did not intend for this particular video to get such a strong response. In fact, he only uploaded it to Youtube in order to fix the orientation, since the video was taken on his cell phone. His initial plan was to only share the video on Facebook, where he uses privacy settings to share content only with his Facebook friends.
Thomas believes that the officers only backed off because Thomas is known in the NYPD for his police-monitoring videos. He told us that during Thursday's incident, the officer on the right said "That's him" to the officer on the left, prompting them to drop the matter. According to Thomas, "They know me by name now." He added in a comment on his YouTube page, "Apparently it's me, not just what I said. I've been experiencing this phenomenon recently. Where police recognize me, even though I've never had contact with them before."
In the 27-second version uploaded on Sunday, Thomas captures an interaction between the officers, just before they turn away. The caption to the video reads, "NYPD Officer want to know what's in the bag. He's seeking to do an unlawful search and possibly make an unlawful arrest. However, his partner is aware of a guy who will fight them in court and win."
Even though he thinks that he got special treatment, Thomas believes that both clips send an important message. "What I'm trying to convey to people," he said, "is that they don't have to submit."
Thomas has been arrested multiple times while filming police in public, an activity which is legal as long as it does not directly interfere with enforcement activity. Despite this, NYC cops have a habit of threatening and arresting bystanders who film them, even after the NYPD explicitly reminded officers in a department-wide memo that the public is permitted to photograph them.