NYPD directive on the legality of public photography to print and carry

Here's a scan of the NYPD Operations Order "Investigation of Individuals Engaged In Suspicious Photography and Video Surveillance," a document issued last month by the Department telling cops in no uncertain terms to stop hassling photographers who shoot in public places, and to get a warrant before searching a camera. Good one to print and carry in the Big Apple.
"Photography and the videotaping of public places, buildings and structures are common activities within New York City . . . and is rarely unlawful," the NYPD operations order begins.

It acknowledges that the city is a terrorist target, but since it's a prominent "tourist destination, practically all such photography will have no connection to terrorism or unlawful conduct."

The department directive -- titled "Investigation of Individuals Engaged in Suspicious Photography and Video Surveillance" -- makes it clear that cops cannot "demand to view photographs taken by a person . . . or direct them to delete or destroy images" in a camera.

Operations Order Investigation of Individuals Engaged In Suspicious Photography and Video Surveillance

SHUTTERBUGGED (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. “Photography and the videotaping of public places (…) is rarely unlawful”

    Oh, so you mean sometimes it could maybe possible be unlawful after all? Well, in that case we should preemptively arrest all those photographers and check whether their particular kind of photography breaks the law or not… Call me paranoid, but something tells me this is exactly the kind of excuse we’re going to hear next time a photographer is harassed.

  2. “Sir, you shouldn’t have police documents. No I’m not going to read it, please hand over the paper, Sir. Why are you taking photographs in the street? You’re going to have to give me your camera, Sir. Sir? Stop resisting, Sir! Stop resisting! Give me the secret documents!”

    In the ensuing fracas, pepper spray was discharged into Mr Smith’s mouth and nose by Lt Moran until he relinquished the apparatus in question. Lt Moran stated he was unaware that photography in the street was in this case lawfully carried out, but that Mr Smith’s other actions and subsequent resistance warranted action by him at the time.

  3. @2:

    Agreed: “rarely illegal” is a stupid phrase. “Legal except for these cases…” is a much better and actually useful phrasing.

    Alas, giving cops the tools they need to do their job right takes all the fun out of getting to “legally” beat people up. I suspect the cops that joined during “we need cops” drives are the “I want to beat people up” cops much more than those who joined at other times.

  4. They’re allowing themselves a small amount of very general leeway to admit into evidence such photographs in the event that someone actually does use photographs taken of “public places, buildings, and structures” toward nefarious ends. They’re obviously depending on officers to use their common sense, but the fact that they’ve had to issue a directive at all should have been an indication that certain people, even police officers, lack common sense. Anyway, this is better than nothing and does provide legal recourse to anyone transit cops or whoever decide to harass.

  5. I’m sure the people who pumped 19 bullets into Amadou Diallo for reaching into a pocket will be happy to wait while you fish out your copy of this statement to tell them why they shouldn’t gun/beat/tase/pepper spray you down.

  6. This is definitely the right direction. I’m thinking a bust card-like headed with something like “Public Photographer’s Rights in New York State” at the top with 3 (at most) points listed on it and the citation of the pertinent sections of legal code in fine print at the bottom, this last not to take up more than 1/5th of the total card space.

    Protecting photographer’s rights is to protect the rights of the public to gather information and evidence, a cornerstone of the exercise of First Amendment Rights.

    Thanks for upping the mindshare, Cory!

  7. Interesting. I’m surprised there even needs to be such a directive, actually. At any given moment there are most likely thousands of tourists taking pictures of various New York buildings and landmarks. The side of my head is most likely in thousands of photo albums around the world, just from trying to get to and from work. I’ve never seen cops harrassing anybody for taking pictures. But I guess it must happen sometimes, and it’s nice that they’ve officially clarified that they aren’t allowed to.

  8. I figure he’d put in the rarely to include things like…oh I don’t know upskirt shots? Taking pictures while naked? Having a knife at the end of the camera? Asking to take pictures of boobies, things like that. I’d classify those things as rare myself, but certainly the tourist taking pictures of a subway or state building shouldn’t be stopped or asked why.

  9. Is there some more official place that I can get a copy of this other than a scan posted on a blog called craphound? Is this posted in (for example) pdf form somewhere on nyc.gov?

  10. Moriarty, I’ve been harassed at least a dozen times since 9-11, by security guards, cops & citizens; but I’m a pretty prolific photog. Nothing ever came of any of it – I always talked my way out of any ‘problem’ they had with me. But it does happen more than you think.

    What I’d like to know is if there has actually ever been a case of photography leading to a terror attack (or whatever). I just see it as one of the tentacles of 8 years of hysteria.

  11. Watchout5..

    I’m pretty sure even those examples aren’t illegal photography, rather; sexual harrassment, indecent exposure [insert photography joke], threatening behaviour with a dangerous weapon, and sexual harrassment again.

    No need to include the camera as an instrument of law breaking, at all.

    Perhaps there is something (like the UK), that classifies the taking of photographs of certain sensitive buildings (in the interest of national security) to be illegal. Like army bases or the Pentagon or something.

  12. I was detained for taking a photograph in 2003. I had a tripod, DSLR and it was at night. Some rookie cops came up behind me and pretty much took me and my gear to the precint. They were calling me a Terrorist and treated me like a criminal. When I got to the precint they were holding up a photocopy of a suspect and said it was me. After being detained in a cell for hours, I was interviewed by the detectives. The FBI was called in and I was interviewed by them. After all this, no charges were drawn and I was allowed to leave without deleting any photos. That said I no longer take photographs of Bridges or any peice of major infrastructure. Its not worth being detained again.

  13. Anonymous:
    That said I no longer take photographs of Bridges or any peice of major infrastructure. Its not worth being detained again.

    Well, you see, that’s how our on-staff terrorists win.

  14. well… if nothing can be done to make them smarter, how about pushing a bill through your local legislative body to have all police rank designations officially changed to “Stupid Mouth Breathing Knuckle Dragging Power Mad Loser Nazi”?

  15. bush out of office and ‘mercans are still mixing up tourist and terrorist.

    war on terra.

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