Filming the police isn't against the law, but this hasn't stopped the NYPD from arresting those who do it.
On Tuesday night, Joseph “Jazz” Hayden and Five Mualimm-ak weren’t expecting to be arrested as they left the Open Society Foundation in Midtown. Mualimm-ak had been a speaker at the launch for Hell is a Very Small Place, an anthology about solitary confinement to which he had contributed. As the two walked out, they saw police officers attempting to move a homeless person who appeared to be emotionally disturbed.
Mualimm-ak is a member of the mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice and has helped create a system which police are supposed to utilize when interacting with people with serious mental illness.
“When the officers respond to an emotional disturbance, they should be able to talk the person down in a non-threatening way,” he explained, holding his hands up to demonstrate the tactics that should be used. “They should always show their hands, show that they’re not going to use a weapon, and say things like, ‘Excuse me sir, I need you to do this,’ instead of giving an order.”
Hayden has been filming police interactions—including numerous stop and frisks—for years. When he heard the man shouting, “I haven’t done anything!” he pulled out his phone and began filming. He also tried to calm the man down.
“I’m yelling Manito! Suave! I’m trying to calm him down and he wanted me to film the incident,” Hayden told Gothamist, noting that he stayed on the sidewalk at least twenty feet from the interaction the entire time. “We were not obstructing. We were within our constitutional rights,” said Mualimm-ak.
In 2014, the NYPD issued an internal memo reminding officers that “members of the public are legally allowed to record (by video, audio or photography) police interactions.”
Not long after Hayden began filming, a squad car arrived. An officer began pushing Hayden, telling him that he would be arrested for obstructing the sidewalk.
Video of the arrest shows Hayden grabbing onto the officer’s shirt before being pushed and placed in a headlock. “I was losing my balance,” the 74-year-old Hayden explained. “I was trying to remain upright! He was poking me in my chest. He was out of control. I was just trying to keep my balance.” The officer responded by placing Hayden in a headlock and pushing him.
[Ed. Note: The original video has been removed from YouTube. Democracy Now! used it in an interview segment with Hayden and Mualimm-ak.]
Hayden was then handcuffed and put in the back of a car. By then, at least a dozen officers and several squad cars had arrived. Hayden says he was not informed why he was under arrest and did not learn that he was being charged with obstructing governmental administration, a misdemeanor, and two counts of disorderly conduct, until arriving in court the following morning. Mualimm-ak was also arrested and charged with obstructing governmental administration and two counts of disorderly conduct.
Nuratu Otulana, a freelance writer from Queens, told Gothamist that she had ended up with both men’s phones as well as Mualimm’s coat, hat and bag, so she walked three blocks to the Midtown North Precinct.
Nearly twenty minutes later, she was joined by other event attendees who had witnessed the police violence and wanted to ensure Mualimm-ak and Hayden’s well-being.
Filmmaker Channing Tyner had planned to file a complaint about what she’d witnessed. Rachel Levine, a non-profit consultant, and Joshua Kristal, a videographer, said that they accompanied Tyner to bear witness, or show police that others were watching their actions.
When the group arrived, they said that officers ignored them. They were soon joined by a fifth person, Terrence Slater, a member of Incarcerated Nation, an organization co-founded by Mualimm-ak. Levine and Kristal stepped outside to make calls; before they reached the front door, an officer called them back.
“I definitely didn’t think I’d broken a law,” Tyner said. She and the others were shocked when they were handcuffed and detained. “I had no idea that was remotely a possibility,” Levine said. None were read their Miranda rights. The lieutenant said that they would be given summonses and released fifteen to twenty minutes later.
Instead, they were held for over two hours. The two men were placed inside the precinct’s lone cell with Hayden and Mualimm-ak; the three women were handcuffed to a bench.
Around 11:30 pm, the five were issued summonses and released. Only when reading the tickets did they learn they had all been charged with failure to disperse, a violation requiring them to appear in Midtown Community Court.
Officers at the Midtown North precinct directed Gothamist to the office of the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information. In response to a series of written questions about the arrests at the precinct, a nameless NYPD spokesperson emailed the following: "Five individuals were issued disorderly conduct summons within the confines of the Midtown North Precinct. The summons was issued at 2105 hours."
A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office, Monica Klein, emailed us this statement: "The administration is committed to increasing police transparency while ensuring our hardworking officers can effectively perform their duties."
Mualimm-ak and Hayden were arraigned on Wednesday evening, over 20 hours later. Although the prosecutor sought $1500 bail for Mualimm-ak, his attorney Gideon Oliver, the former president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (and Hayden’s attorney in a 2011 case stemming from his filming of the police) noted his client’s strong community ties, including the family members and friends packing the arraignment court.
“The factual allegations against them in the criminal complaint are not true,” Oliver also told the court. Both Mualimm-ak and Hayden were released without bail and scheduled to appear in court next month.
“The police are [public] servants,” Hayden told Gothamist shortly after his release. “They work for us. We pay them. The public has the right to observe and film them. They should be held accountable and the public that pays them should know this.”
When asked if the arrest would stop him from filming the police, his response was an emphatic, “Hell no!”