I’ve been arrested more times as a photojournalist trying to live a law-abiding life than I was as a criminal.
The first time the cops took my press credential, one of them ripped it off my chest and ran away, like a purse-snatching thief. It was at a Yankees home game. Boston vs. New York. A fight between a Sox fan and a Yankees fan broke out in the stands a few rows away from me. Instant classic.
I lifted up my camera and took a few pictures. As I was taking pictures, uniformed NYPD officers—moonlighting as private security guards for the Yankees on something cops call a "paid detail"—swarmed the scene and broke up the fight. One of them came over to me and put his hand over my camera lens.
I said I was a journalist. I produced my NYPD-issued credential, a large, pink and white plastic card hanging from a small beaded chain around my neck.
The cop paused, looked at the credential, grabbed it, yanked it off my neck, and ran off. Other cops arrested me. Then they let me go and started walking away, as if nothing had happened. I demanded they find out which one of their colleagues snatched my press credential, and that they go get it and return it.
They said I would have to go to the local police precinct and file a report. I went to the 44th Precinct and waited. Eventually, I made a statement to Internal Affairs. But I never heard back from the police—presumably, nothing ever happened to the cop who stole my press pass.
That was my introduction to police-press relations: New York City, circa 2007.
I never wanted to be a photojournalist, but that's what I became. In 1991, I was convicted of manslaughter and weapons possession and sent to prison for 6 1/3 to 19 years. I served more than 12 of those years.
In prison, I became a jailhouse lawyer. In 1992, at the age of twenty-two, I won my first case. Three years later, I was transferred to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility. At Woodbourne, I did some legal work for a Latin King leader named Tiger. Tiger insisted on paying me for my work by hooking me up with a job in the prison newspaper. I wrote articles explaining prisoners' constitutional rights and how they could assert these rights at parole or prison disciplinary hearings.
In 2003, when I was released, I enrolled at New York University, where I earned my degree in creative writing. Of course, I couldn’t find work as a writer, so I looked for jobs as paralegal. But because of my criminal record, no one would hire me. To pass the time and stay out of trouble, I bought a camera, and started taking pictures around the city.
It was a natural fit: I’d always been a good shot.
I met a girl named Jackie. Jackie and I were driving around in the Catskills one beautiful fall day when we came upon a pick-up truck stopped crosswise in the middle of the road, blocking it. A kid in an oversized firefighter’s bunker jacket that was probably his father's was manning the roadblock. I grabbed my camera, hopped out, and asked what was happening. He looked at my camera and asked me if I was press. I lied, and said yes. He took off the bunker jacket and he handed it to me. "You’re going to need this to get past the cops," he said.
The author's photo of "Subway Hero" Wesley Autrey with his daughters soon after Autrey's famous rescue. Photo by J.B. Nicholas.
I walked up the road, which was lined on both sides with volunteer firefighters’ pick-up trucks and cars. A woman was putting her gear away in the trunk of her car. Her eyes were blank and fixed—the thousand yard stare. I walked farther up the road. There was a bend ahead, and state troopers. I had the camera slung over my shoulder, beneath the bunker jacket. I walked past them and around the bend.
The burnt wreckage was in the middle of the road. A small car had gone head-to-head with an S.U.V. and burst into flames. Somebody said three died there, on the road, more or less instantly—another had died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital. I may have killed, but I’d never been close to death, like this. I took a picture. I left. I went down the road. No one bothered me. I returned the jacket to the kid at the roadblock. I said thanks.
Over lunch with Jackie at Brio's in Phoenicia, I found the telephone number for the local newspaper, the Daily Freeman, and called them. I told them about the picture and asked if they’d be interested in it. They were. I sold it to them for $150. The next day my photograph was on front page, above the fold. It was a Sunday. I was never paid.
Back home, in New York City, I bought a police scanner and started riding around to breaking news scenes—crimes, fires, accidents, protests—and taking pictures. At first, I sold my pictures to Newsday and the Post. The New York Times and the Daily News were never interested when I called. Then, one day after Christmas, an alert went out on the scanner. A man at a subway station in Harlem had experienced an epileptic seizure and fallen onto the tracks below. A train was coming. It was about to pull into the station.
I telephoned Juan Arellano, the daytime photo editor for the Post. Juan said he had it covered. I went anyway.
Wesley Autrey, a construction worker taking his two young children to visit their mother, happened to be standing on the platform that afternoon. Autrey was a common man, but his heart held uncommon bravery. He did not hesitate. With his kids looking on in horror, Autrey jumped down onto the tracks, in front of the oncoming train, and tried to get the stranger onto the platform. Seeing there was no time, he grabbed the man in a bear hug, pulled him into a drainage trench between the tracks, and held on to him as the train passed over them.
Amazingly, the two survived without a scratch, though the train passed so close that it left a grease stain on Autrey's knit hat. That was how close death came.
I arrived to find Autrey laughing and joking with paramedics in the back of an ambulance.
The next day, my photograph of Autrey and his two children was on the cover of Newsday. Juan called me. "What the fuck?!" he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Why didn’t you call me?" Juan asked.
"I did," I said.
"Okay," he said. "From now on, you work for me. Three days a week I call you, give you work. Whenever you get pictures, you call me. Okay?"
The Post wrote a letter for me and the police department gave me a press credential. I had my first job.
Former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne (checked tie) escorts reporter Kerry Burke out of Zuccotti Park during the police raid that cleared the park. Photo by J.B. Nicholas.
Though I may be the most arrested journalist in New York City, I'm far from the only one. Through the years, scores of journalists have been harassed, arrested, and assaulted by the NYPD, simply for reporting the news. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, police interference with journalists was commonplace.
Ask any reporter on the city beat about the story of Kerry Burke, legendary street reporter at the Daily News.
In February 2010, five Bronx kids were having a snowball fight when an errant snowball accidentally hit a passerby. The passerby happened to be Adonis Ramirez, an off-duty cop in street clothes. Ramirez drew his gun and arrested the kids. The News sent Burke to Ramirez's Bronx apartment to get his side of the story. A neighbor let Burke into the building where Ramirez lived.
Ramirez was not home, but his wife was. Burke spoke with her briefly.
Soon, numerous police officers arrived at the scene. Burke identified himself as a journalist. He showed the police his NYPD-issued press credential. A lieutenant seized the credential. He accused Burke of committing burglary and arrested him. When video surveillance footage indicating a resident allowed Burke into the building came to light, the police then changed their accusation and alleged Burke had impersonated a police officer.
Eventually, the police let Burke go, but they refused to return his NYPD-issued press credential. Instead, Burke was ordered to appear at One Police Plaza for a meeting with officials from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information—better known as DCPI. DCPI issues press credentials. After the meeting, DCPI officials kept Burke's press credential, and told Burke "we may or may not be in touch."
Kevin R. Convey, who now serves as chair of the journalism department at Quinnipiac University, was hired as the editor of the Daily News a few months after the incident involving Burke occurred. After settling in, Convey began asking folks around the newsroom if there was anything he could do for his staff to make their work lives easier. When Convey got to Burke, Burke told him about the confiscation of his press credential, which was preventing him from crossing police lines to gather news. Burke told him he had been working without the credential for months.
"I just thought that was unbelievable," Convey said.
Convey had a getting-to-know-you meeting with Ray Kelly, then the NYPD commissioner. Over lunch at the Harvard Club, Convey inquired about Burke’s credential. Paul Browne, Kelly's hand-picked public relations deputy, defended the police response. Burke had tried to impersonate a police officer, Browne said, according to Convey.
But Convey, though he was new to New York, was not new to the world.
"I thought to myself—bullshit,'" Convey told me. "Kerry knows he doesn't have to impersonate an officer to get people to talk. He's the best police reporter in New York City."
Soon after the meeting, Detective Brian Sessa of DCPI found Burke working at his desk inside NYPD headquarters, where journalists maintain offices known as "the Shack." Sessa placed an NYPD press credential on Burke's desk, said "compliments of Commissioner Kelly," and left.
"Whether or not they investigated and decided that they were wrong, or whether or not it was a peace offering to a new editor, I don't know, and frankly I don't really give a shit," Convey told me. "Because the fact of the matter is I wanted the best police reporter in New York City to have his press pass back."
Once video cameras became small and light enough to attach to still cameras, I began recording much of my work, whenever time allowed and when it seemed I might have some interaction with the police.
In July 2014, a man committed suicide by jumping in front of a subway train at the Broadway-Lafayette station. I was on the subway platform taking photographs when an NYPD officer blocked my camera and ordered me to leave. When I displayed my credential, the cop barked at me. “I don’t care if you’re press. Upstairs. Upstairs. Upstairs. Upstairs. Sir, you wanna get arrested? I will lock you up. Upstairs. Now. Let’s go. Have some respect.”
A police lieutenant was standing nearby when the cop said this, but he did nothing. The first cop, emboldened by this implicit approval, began pushing me backward, away from the scene.
Members of the public were allowed to remain in the same area where I had been standing.
On October 30, 2015, I was on assignment for the News when two construction workers became trapped in a partial building collapse in Midtown. By the time I arrived on the scene, one of the men had already been brought out, dead. Efforts were underway to free the second worker, who was still alive. The rescue effort itself could not be seen from the street, as the collapse had occurred in the rear of the building.
I waited on the sidewalk next to the building for a visible, newsworthy event to occur. As I waited, a man in a suit appeared and ordered me to leave. I asked the suit to identify himself. He refused and persisted in his demand that I leave. To avoid confrontation, I stepped into a shop and waited for him to head on his way.
Officers from DCPI arrived on the scene, including Deputy Commissioner Stephen Davis. The cops rounded up all the credentialed journalists who'd been on the street in front of the rescue site and corralled them into a press pen.
From inside the pen, journalists were not able to see, hear, or photograph the operation.
The NYPD was afraid of journalists documenting a failed rescue attempt.
Mercifully, the rescue worked. The man was extracted from the building, placed on a stretcher, and rolled toward a waiting ambulance. I exited the store, and stepped out onto the street to document these events. My credential was in plain sight. I walked approximately 150 feet through a scene filled with police, firefighters, and paramedics. No one questioned or challenged my right to be there.
But when I raised my camera to take a picture of the injured construction worker being loaded into the back of the ambulance, Detective Michael DeBonis grabbed me and pulled me away. Then Davis, the DCPI chief, stepped up and said: “This is the last time you'll do that.”
DeBonis ordered me to surrender my press credential, ejected me from the scene, and ordered officers to ensure I didn't return. I was told later that after I was kicked out, he went over to the press pen and barked, "Tell your boys in the press photographers association he's never getting another press card."
I sued in federal court, which led to an administrative hearing regarding the revocation of my press credential. I won. Rather than fight the lawsuit, the NYPD capitulated and agreed to give me back my credential. When I went into headquarters to pick it up, no cop in DCPI would look at me. Deputy Commissioner Davis was seated at the counter in the office when I entered. He kept his back to me the entire time. Finally, a police lawyer appeared and handed me back my credential.
Gamely, she shook my hand. She didn’t say it, but I thought it to myself, “Good luck.”
[Editor's note: The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on this article.]
JB Nicholas is a New York based writer, reporter and photojournalist. He is at work on a memoir about his raw and lawless adolescence.