The NYPD trains its officers to know that cell phone cameras are omnipresent when they're on the job. Yet some officers refuse to acknowledge the legality of filming in public when it doesn't interfere with police actions. Photographer Shawn Thomas was recording a police stop at the Crown Heights-Utica Ave 3/4/5 stop last Saturday without incident when an Officer Rojas pulls out his own cell phone camera, walks 12 steps, and blocks Thomas' shot. "This is my station right here," the officer says. "Get out of this train station."
"You're violating my personal space," Thomas finally tells the officer after his shot is being blocked. "You're violating my personal space too," the officer replies.
"What's your name and shield number?" Thomas asks. The officer responds in the Socratic method: "What's your name?"
It goes on like this, until Thomas becomes indignant: "Back the fuck out and get out of my personal space."
"Don't curse me," the officer says. "I'm not disrespecting you."
The encounter begins around the 5:00 mark.
"What happens is the officer twists my arm behind my back and begins pushing me to the staircase, and disables [my] camera," Thomas says of the gap in footage between his conversation with Officer Rojas and cell phone footage of his own arrest that he obtained from a bystander.
Via email, Thomas explains the remainder of his arrest:
He then grabs the camera and twists my arm behind my back again. I tell people to take out their phone and record. He throws me to the ground. While on the ground, I continue to identify myself and the Officer to the people, that's when he hits me in the back of the head forcing my face to the pavement. That caused cuts to the inside and outside of my mouth which bled uncontrollably.
Thomas was taken to Kings County Hospital and treated before being released back into police custody. He was charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, trespass, and disorderly conduct. The arrest report written by Officer Rojas and posted to Photography Is Not A Crime, does not mention the officer's filming or Thomas's filming at the outset.
"I record police activity whereever possible, if for no other reason than to document," Thomas says as a way of explaining his prior arrests for filming law enforcement officers. "It's in my DNA. Some people collect stamps, I collect images."
Most recently, Thomas was arrested for taking photos outside a Bushwick precinct house. His arresting officer accused him of possibly being a terrorist.
"All of the criminal matters have been resolved in my favor, as I never committed the offenses," Thomas says. "I never accepted any offers/plea deals from the Kings County District Attorney's Office."
Thomas has filed a notice of claim with the Comptroller's office, but is unsure as to whether he'll sue. He is asking the Brooklyn DA to charge Officer Rojas with perjury for lying in his arrest report. As it happens, Officer Michael Ackermann was indicted this past summer for lying about the arrest of New York Times photographer Robert Stolarik.
The NYPD has not responded to a request for comment.