Shooting on the Street & Engaging the Police

Todd Maisel, a 30-year veteran spot news photographer, has been arrested four times and convicted once for criminal trespassing.

“I learned by making mistakes,” said Maisel, who now serves as the liaison between the New York Press Photographer Association (NYPAA) and the New York City Police Department.

The relationship between photographer and police officer is a complicated one, Maisel said, as he drove around Brooklyn in his mobile office: a Honda Tucson equipped with a makeshift computer table, two police scanners and Nikon cameras.

“There is a lot of stuff that they don’t teach you in school,” Maisel said, sporting a faded blue NYPD cap. “You have the right to freedom of the press until you meet the people enforcing the laws.”

Photographers wrangle with police on a daily basis, according to Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the NYPAA and  40-year veteran photographer. Osterreicher now travels around the nation, educating photographers and police officers about First Amendment rights.

Osterreicher said many photographers don’t fully understand the law, adding, “But even if you know your rights, the probability is that the officer does not.”

Knowing the law is a must, but navigating them comes with experience. Below are few common scenarios you may encounter in the field.

Do I need to ask  permission when I’m shooting on the streets?

No. When you’re in public spaces you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including building, cars, or police officers. You’re allowed to photograph an officer as long as you are not obstructing them from doing their job. According to NYC law, “Standing on a street, walkway of a bridge, sidewalk, or other pedestrian passageway while using a handheld device” does not require permission or a permit.

Can I shoot in the subway?

Yes. The MTA states that any photography or filming is permitted without the use of additional equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods. If you have a NYPD issued press pass, you’re allowed to use additional equipment. Note the emphasis on using handheld devices.

What if I photograph in a private space, such as someone’s home?  Is that fair game?

When you’re on private property, the property owner sets the rules about taking photographs. If you violate these rules, or you get caught, you can be arrested for trespassing.

But once I’m allowed into a private space, I’m in the clear, right?

No. Photographs taken in private places require consent. Permission to enter someone’s home does not give you consent to photograph.

What if an officer approaches me?

There is a four-tiered approach that officers must follow if they suspect someone of committing a crime:

  1.  A police officer may approach someone to request information
  2.  They have the right to question when there is founded suspicion
  3.  Stop and frisk, if an officer has reasonable suspicion or fear of a weapon
  4.  Police officers may arrest anyone based on probable cause

What are the magic words?

If you are stopped by an officer for photographing, ask, “Am I free to go?” According to the ACLU, “If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime, or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.”

If an officer asks to see your pictures, you have the right to say no. If you’re asked to delete your photos, you are not required by law to do so. In addition, you can plead the Fifth Amendment, meaning you can refuse to say anything that may be incriminating. According to Osterreicher, most of these situations can be avoided simply by being respectful.

Photo by Adam Perez

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