NYPD's Backwards Policy on Photography at Occupy Wall Street

The day after police evicted Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park last fall, I had some trouble deciphering exactly what had happened. Police had corralled journalists into a "press pen" removed from the park itself, and arrested at least ten people for attempting to take photos or video. When I visited Zuccotti during the following days and weeks to see for myself what was happening, I could only enter through a single access point, guarded by police officers who often filmed me as I walked in. Why could police arrest people for taking video footage of them, and then turn the cameras on those same people for engaging in lawful activity in a public space?

The answer, of course, is that they couldn't—not legally, at least. Under the First Amendment, Americans have the right to observe and record members of the police force in the public discharge of their duties. Conversely, the NYPD’s right to conduct photo and video surveillance on citizens engaging in lawful protest is limited, with very few exceptions, to circumstances in which “it reasonably appears that unlawful conduct is about to occur, is occurring, or has occurred.”

As a report released today by the New York Civil Liberties Union starkly illustrates, though, these rules bear little relation to what is actually happening. Police continue to subject photographers to harassment, injury, and arrest. In July, an activist (and friend of mine) found that videotaping police stop and frisks had landed him on a “Wanted”-style police poster featuring his full name, photograph, and home address. The following week, a photographer attempting to document an arrest was flung violently over a stone bench several times, pinned down by a knee on the back of his neck, and arrested.

Even as they mistreat photographers, police are continuing to subject these same citizens to illegal surveillance. When recordings are made for a purpose other than to record unlawful activity, police are supposed to avoid “close-ups of participants.” Yet peaceful marches are regularly lined with NYPD officers, cameras in hand, zooming in on individual faces. Even more egregiously, there has been at least one case this summer of police filming a protestor receiving medical treatment by EMTs.

From the earliest days of the occupation at Zuccotti Park, a police watchtower carried out round-the-clock surveillance of the protesters below. Almost a full year after the Occupy movement began, the watchtower remains, clearly communicating that “even if you’re not doing anything wrong, we’re watching.”

Under our laws and the Constitution, you have the right to film police without making yourself a target, and to engage in political speech and assembly without police surveillance (see the ACLU’s related resources here). Follow NYCLU’s Facebook and Twitter feeds to learn when they post a new Free Speech Threat Assessment report, and keep an eye out for upcoming reports by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project on the police response to Occupy movements in Boston, Charlotte, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Learn more about photographers' rights: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.


View comments (8)
Read the Terms of Use


Great post! This is such disturbing behavior. The NYC police dept is completely out of control! Maybe the recent reduction in stop-and-frisks shows that public attention can have an impact on these egregious behaviors.

Keep up the good work ACLU!


Thank-you! For all you do.


It would be a backward policy, if it was not intended to intimidate and demoralize protesters. . . . . . . and to be judge, jury, and executioner
One news photo spoke 1000 words showing a much more civilized handling of protesters in Russia.
What was it Gore Vidal was saying about police being recruited from the criminal class? Thinking we have at least several criminal classes in the USA. (finance and banking, MIC, Oil, drugs, politics, MSM, religious, and then there is the common thief)


The ridiculous idea that you cannot photograph the police seems to be worse in states like New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California. It's not a coincidence that these are also states in which out of control public employees unions have the most influence in state legislatures. This is not a safety or security issue, it's about protecting abusive or incompetent public employees at the public's expense.


Born and raised in Germany, these these "NYPD police towers" evoke eerie souvenirs for me about the Berlin Wall and total surveillance. My mind associates these watch towers with totalitarian regimes... am I wrong?

I do understand that the few top beneficiaries of the capitalist system, the top 1%, have to use all means to keep their supremacy in place. These police watch towers and the surveillance methods seem to symbolize how increasingly difficult it must be for the top 1% to keep this loop-sided economic system in place, don't you think?

Vivifiant, Ohio


So is the Hanschu Consent Decree no longer in effect, or is the Handschu Commission just toothless?


NYPD , Anti Americans against freedom , NYPD are the terrorist , attacking Americans in the Land of the Free . Every American should own a gun and the Constitution of the United States . Soldiers are being killed in the name of freedom , NYPD , is ANTI AMERICAN ...


*I* can tell you why we aren't allowed to tape them: Because they're big fat JERKS and control freaks of the highest order who feel more sorry for a millionaire than a NORMAL person.

Stay Informed