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MTA cop tries to stop videographer at Atlantic Yards site

Though a good number of photographers regularly shoot around the Atlantic Yards footprint and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Vanderbilt Yard, a video artist/teacher on the first week of her visit to Brooklyn found herself on the wrong side of an MTA police officer Sunday.

He attempted to confiscate her camera, questioned whether she was part of an anti-AY organization, and more than once reminded her that the project was proceeding, according to her account.

Katherin McInnis, who teaches video and photography in San Francisco and is visiting Brooklyn on sabbatical, told me she was hardly traumatized by the encounter, because she knew she had the right to shoot video--and blurry, “arty” video at that--from the Pacific Street sidewalk bordering the Vanderbilt Yard. (On her AV Diary, she posted some stills, some of which are reproduced here.)

[See comment from Tracy Collins, who says that building security/construction officials, not cops, have occasionally tried to stop him from taking photos.]

Complaint to be filed

But she said she would file a complaint out of principle. “I feel a certain amount of responsibility,” she said. “I know this situation comes up for my students, my fellow photographers, getting harassed in some cases. It’s important that the cops know they can’t take away your camera, and that other people know that as well. I don’t have so much as a parking ticket. He was asking, ‘Have you ever been arrested, have you ever been detained?’” Even if you had [been], you’re still allowed to take photographs.”

The encounter had some inadvertent comic moments. “He kept asking me if I was a member of an organization,” trying to find out if she was part of a group opposing the project, McInnis recounted. “I totally had no idea. I told him I was part of an art collective. That didn’t help.”

When the officer asked why she was interested in the railyards, her response was “Aren’t they going away?” She thought would defuse the situation, she recounted, but it didn’t help.

MTA response, MTA record

I called the MTA public affairs office early yesterday afternoon and outlined the incident, as recounted by McInnis, named the officer, asked if there was an incident report, and asked for the MTA policy. I didn't get a response by the end of day, but when one is forthcoming, I’ll add it.

The MTA police have a track record of harassing photographers. A 3/17/06 article on the web site of the National Press Photographers Association reported that the MTA had pledged to the New York Civil Liberties Union that it will remind its staff and law enforcement officers that there is no photography ban on MTA property.

The photographers’ group noted that, despite the defeat of an MTA-favored ban on photography, MTA personnel, specifically on the Long Island Railroad, had harassed photographers, even threatening them with arrest. The Vanderbilt Yard is used to service LIRR trains.

Interest piqued

McInnis, who was staying with friends in the neighborhood, said she’d become curious after seeing so many signs in windows of homes and businesses opposing Atlantic Yards. After downloading a map, she took her “small consumer video camera” to the site.

She said that she’d been shooting for about ten minutes, while listening to an iPod, when the police officer approached her. He told her to turn off the camera and then asked her to turn it over. She said she didn’t think she was required to do so. He told her she wasn’t being cooperative. He asked for ID, and she provided her California driver’s license as well as her Brooklyn address.

He then ran a "security check" and asked McInnis if she’d ever been arrested, detained, or questioned--questions that seem more directed toward terrorism (a lingering issue for the Atlantic Yards project) than political opposition.

Finally, she said, he asked if she was part of any organization "opposing these Yards." She said no. He said "You know the project is probably going to go through." She made no response. He indicated she was free to go.


  1. i've been told a number of times that i'm not allowed to photograph buildings from a public sidewalk, but never by the police or MTA. i usually get this hassle from (i assume) building security or construction/demolition contractor foremen.

    thanks for sticking up for us, Katherin!

  2. I've often been told "no photos" from building security when taking photographs from the public sidewalk. I usually just stop and say, "call the police, I'll wait" and so far they've always backed down.

    Never tangled with MTA "police" yet though. Given their reputation, I probably won't use that tactic.

  3. "Finally, she said, he asked if she was part of any organization "opposing these Yards." She said no. He said "You know the project is probably going to go through."

    That was a very, very stupid thing for the MTA cop to say, because worse than his illegal attempt to confiscate the camera, this makes it clear that his intent was arbitrary in hindering the exercise of her legal rights.

  4. I've been stopped on Pacific Street by regular cops and asked to show ID whilst taking pictures there - but for an MTA Cop to demand your camera is ridiculous and certainly not legal.

  5. Then-MTA police chief Kevin McConville agreed to direct MTA officers *not* to harass photographers about two years ago, after Daily News photographer Todd Maisel and I worked together to expose the problem (see link below), and the NYCLU threatened to sue (as referenced in this post).
    While they’ve gotten better since then, the problem persists. Just last summer an officer prevented me from shooting video at penn station after a major storm had shut down LIRR service.
    -Bobby Cuza, NY1 transit reporter

  6. If i'm doing a shoot, is there some document out there that spells this out??? that when (not if) I'm bothered, I at least have proof that's it's legal.

    I can see why people would just submit, cause they don't want to deal with the hassle. Even giving my ID and having them run it seems too much.

  7. A few months ago, I was stopped for taking pictures in a subway station; the four plainclothes cops demanded ID and wrote down my details.

    Afterwards, I did some research and found that in New York State, the police cannot compel you to produce ID unless they are detaining you (in what is known as a Terry stop or a "level three De Bour encounter")...both of those require the police to assert "reasonable suspicion" that one is involved in criminal activity.

    And I am not a lawyer, but I would think it very difficult for the police to argue that that threshold of "reasonable suspicion" exists when photography is not against the law. (And, the courts have found that refusal to provide identity does not in itself constitute suspicious behavior.)

  8. This is a regular occurrence in NYC. The problem becomes when people let it roll off their shoulders instead of following up with a complaint to the proper department, as well as an email to the NYCLU. If you don't like it, so something to change it.

  9. Yes. If you give up your rights, you're giving up my right, because I'm the next guy along. They're our rights. Know them and stand up for them.
    It doesn't mean be a jerk about it, and it doesn't mean making stupid sacrifices, but it does mean standing your ground until you can't, and then following up.
    Oh, and maybe stop electing people who don't give a rat(ner)'s ass about our rights.


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