New York, NY, USA

In detention

Police officers detain a young woman on the Lower East Side

New York, NY, USA

“Come closer,” said the cop. “Come closer. You wanna videotape this? Don’t be shy. Come right over here.”

I moved forward a few feet, suspecting a trap, making sure not to go any closer than the ten feet that is sometimes considered the magical ‘safe distance’ for approaching a working police officer. But of course, there is no ‘safe distance’. It all depends on the mood of the moment.

There were four cops, mostly male, surrounding a young woman. She was seated on the sidewalk with her hands cuffed behind her back.

“Why am I being detained?” she shouted.

“Because of your behavior,” the cop told her.

The woman was distressed and angry but articulate and lucid, repeating that she had not been read her rights, calling out her name, birthdate and address. The cop behind her kept his hand on her shoulder, making sure that she could not get up. He declined to answer her questions about whether she was being detained or not.

“Justice is served, everyone,” she said. “The threat is over. You can go back to what you were doing.” The cop apparently thought she was talking to the bystanders, not to him or his colleagues.

“You wanted them to videotape, they’re all here videotaping,” he said, gesturing to me, to the people on the fire escapes all around.

Flashing lights appeared at the bottom of the street, as an ambulance slowly made its way up against the flow of traffic.

“What I don’t get nowadays,” said the cop to his colleagues in a conversational tone of voice. “Everybody wants to videotape. But nobody helps. I saw it on the news today, a lady got pummeled, kicked the shit out of her … nobody went in to help her.”

The woman on the ground, who had grown quieter, ending all of her sentences with ‘sir’, rejoined the conversation.

“Nobody forced you to be a police officer,” she told the cop.

“Nobody forced you to be a bum, either,” he rejoined.

“I’m not a fucking bum, you stupid shit,” she snapped. “I have two fucking jobs, you asshole.”

The ambulance drew in to the kerb, and the cops pulled her to her feet and marched her down the street towards the vehicle. One of them picked up an American flag that the woman had left on the ground, and walked after her, the flag trailing from her hand.

I thought about this again yesterday when I read about the <a href=””>death of Eric Garner</a>, a Staten Island man who suffered a fatal heart attack while being arrested. Bystanders filmed the arrest with their smartphones, capturing images of a plainclothes officer with his arm locked around Garner’s throat and the dying man’s repeated words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

Garner’s death also made me think of Tom Robinson’s song “Blue Murder” about the death of Liddle Towers, with its chilling lines “They say he screamed blue murder in the cell that night/But he must have been wrong ‘cos they all deny it/Gateshead station – police and quiet/Liddle, he died.” There were no cameraphones in 1976. Whatever happened to Towers happened off the record. No police officer was ever charged in connection with his death.

The cops that I recorded were not happy to be on camera, but they did nothing to stop it. That is not always the case. A federal lawsuit has been filed, asking a judge to reaffirm the First Amendment right of members of the public to record police activity. The police department’s own guides state that recording does not constitute probable cause for arrest, but some officers feel differently.

When I filmed my neighbor being detained one night back in June, I was not completely sure it was the right thing to do. Whatever your motives, it feels voyeuristic to record someone in a moment of great personal distress. If you’re on the ground with your hands behind your back and four cops standing over you, are the lenses pointed at you allies or just more enemies?

But what I told myself at the time, and what I still believe, is that it is important for interactions between the police and the public to be witnessed and to be recorded. It is not a matter of hoping to catch the cops behaving badly so that you can enjoy a brief moment of YouTube notoriety. A cellphone video can as easily exonerate police officers as condemn them. But in an encounter between an ordinary citizen and the police, the odds are heavily stacked in favor of an institution that has a legal monopoly on force. Independent witnesses do something to redress that imbalance. They may also do something to discourage police officers from using more force than necessary. And the ubiquitous cameraphones, intrusive as they may be, at least offer an alternative to the situation where it is “the cop’s word against yours”, a situation in which the cop’s word has always carried vastly more weight with the judge. For those reasons, I believe that recording police actions is not only appropriate, but necessary.

Because we know what can happen when there are no witnesses at all.

Liddle, he died.