L.A. Sheriff Calls Photojournalism a 'Suspicious Activity,' Photogs Say

     LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department illegally arrests, searches and interrogates photojournalists for taking photos on public streets, under an unconstitutional policy that includes photography as a "suspicious activity" which is one of the "potential indicators of terrorism," the National Photographers' Rights Organization says in Federal Court.
     Plaintiffs include the organization's founder Shawn Nee, Long Beach Post staff reporter Greggory Moore, and freelance photographer Shane Quentin.
     Nee says he was detained and searched "for photographing turnstiles on the Los Angeles Metro," and that the arresting deputies asked "if he planned to sell the photos to al Qaeda and threaten(ed) to put his name on the FBI's 'hit list.'"
     Moore says L.A. Sheriff's deputies detained and searched him "while he was photographing drivers for a news story, accusing him of 'suspicious activity.'"
     Quentin was thrown into the back of a squad car for 45 minutes for "photographing the brilliantly lit refineries in South Los Angeles at night".
     L.A. deputies ordered Nee and Quentin not to take photos from public sidewalks on other occasions, and they are not the only photographers who have "suffered similar treatment as the hands of LASD," according to the complaint.
     The complaint states: "The LASD's policy and practices of targeting photographers did not develop spontaneously. Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented 'suspicious activity reporting' programs, under which officers are trained to report certain categories of behavior believed to be potential indicators of terrorism. Many departments include photography as one such 'suspicious activity' that should be reported. LASD's policy and practice of subjecting photographers to search and detention, and of ordering people not to photograph in public places where photography is generally allowed results from a deliberate extension of, or improper training on, these 'suspicious activity reporting' programs."
     Nee says defendant Deputy Richard Gylfie stopped and searched him for taking photos in the subway on Oct. 31, 2009, and asked him if he planned to sell the pics to al Qaeda. Gylfie told him - falsely - that the Metro Transportation Authority banned photography, and when Nee said that was not the case, Gylfie said: "'I want to know who you are, and I want to know why you're taking pictures of the subway system. Al Qaeda would love to buy your pictures, so I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al Qaeda to sell those pictures to them for terrorist purposes. That's, that's a crime. You understand?' When Nee again said he was committing no crime, Gylfie told Nee he was 'being detained until I have determined that you have not committed a crime,'" according to the complaint.
     Nee says Gylfie searched him, accused him again of being in cahoots with al Qaeda: "'If you're down here taking pictures and selling them to al Qaeda so they can blow up our subway system, I've got a problem with that. That's a crime.'"
     The complaint adds: "Several minutes into the interrogation, Nee informed Gylfie that he was exercising his right to remain silent. In response, Gylfie told him, 'You know, I'll just submit your name to T.L.O. [terrorism liaison officer]. Every time your driver's license gets scanned, every time you take a plane, any time you go on any type of public transit system where they look at your identification, you're going to be stopped. You will be detained. You'll be searched. You will be on the F.B.I.'s hit list. Is that what you want? ... Every time you move, you will be stopped and detained and searched. And delayed.'" (Brackets and ellipsis in complaint.)
     Actually, photography is allowed in the Metro Rail system as long as it is "not for commercial purpose," and "no permit is required if the photographic equipment is hand held, no tripods or flash are used, and the images are not taken inside moving trains," the complaint states.
     Nee filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Department, and received a letter stating that the deputy did not violate any department policies.
     Moore says eight deputies surrounded him and accused him of "suspicious activity" as he photographed drivers for a news story. He says the deputies took his camera, held his hands back and searched him, "groping the area of his groin twice, pulling up his T-shirt and checking the waistband of his pants."
     Moore told them he was a reporter and asked for his camera back, but a deputy said he wanted to see the photographs Moore had taken. "Moore believed from the officer's response and his demeanor that they would only return the camera if Moore showed them the pictures," the complaint states. They let him go after 15 to 20 minutes.
     Quentin, who was put into the squad car for 45 minutes, says deputies asked "what he did with the pictures he took and whether he was affiliated with any terrorist organizations or a member of any street gang. They asked where he lived, about his job, and where he had parked that night."
     The complaint then cites three other photographers whom deputies stop and interrogated for taking photos from public property.
     The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the department's policies violate the First and Fourth Amendments, and an injunction to stop the department from "the unlawful detention, search, interrogation, and harassment of photographers solely based on the fact they are taking photographs."
     They are represented by Peter Bibring with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.