Cops Target Photographers
With camera in hand, Momoko Sudo headed from her Schenley Park home to the Biltmore Hotel gym for her morning workout. It was June 10, and the sun was bursting through the clouds after an early-morning shower. The demure 39-year-old Japanese artist paid particular attention to the raindrops on the leaves. She planned to photograph them.
Drawn by the picturesque entry into Coral Gables via Coral Way, she crossed Red Road and strolled along a sidewalk until she spotted a police officer sitting on his motorcycle talking on a cell phone. Thinking it a good image, she snapped a photo and continued walking.
"Come here!" Ofcr. Nelson Rodriguez barked. Then he demanded her camera. Soon he deleted more than 150 photos. He ripped out the memory card and slammed it on the sidewalk.
police target photographers
"I was very upset," says Sudo, who stands five feet two inches talls and considers herself a passive person. "But I didn't want to say anything because he was very big and angry."
The incident is one of at least four that have occurred in Miami-Dade County over the past year in which photographers have ended up arrested, handcuffed, threatened, intimidated, or accused of being a terrorist. (I spent 16 hours in jail as a result of one of them.) Taken together, they raise the question of whether the First Amendment means anything anymore. "Officers do not have the right to seize cameras, look at the images, or delete the images," says Oregon attorney Bert Krages, who wrote The Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images.
Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, authorities across the United States have been cracking down on photographers — even though none of the 9/11 terrorists or others in recent cases is known to have snapped pictures. The past year has seen a particular increase. Among the cases:
In May, Russian photographer Stanislav Arkhipov was jailed four nights for trespassing after he shot pictures of a natural gas tank in Lynn, Massachusetts. A judge dropped all charges against Arkhipov, who said he simply enjoys taking photos of industrial sites.
Last month, a paparazzo was arrested for stalking after he photographed a pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears at a gas station in Louisiana. Edwin Merino was standing more than 200 feet from Britney's sister. The name of the town was Liberty. His case is still pending.
In November 2006, Bogdan Mohora was collared after he snapped photos of cops making an arrest in Seattle. He was standing across the street. Police, who kept him in a jail cell for an hour, eventually agreed to pay an $8,000 settlement and passed a new policy on dealing with photographers.
And in the nation's capital, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) recently announced she would hold hearings to discuss police harassment of tourists at the city's main train station. "No one [should be] forbidden from taking photos of the beautiful and historic Union Station," she stated in a letter to her constituents.
Unfortunately in Miami, no such advocate for photographers has stepped up. And it's much needed here. Consider the case of visual artist David Rohn, an eccentric 57-year-old gay man with a penchant for dressing up as females in the name of art. On June 15, Rohn ended up handcuffed for two hours after Miami Police saw him shooting pictures of himself dressed as a Muslim woman in a parking lot near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 79th Street.
After placing his camera on a tripod, Rohm took five photos. Then a female police officer pulled up and drew her gun. She ordered him to place his hands against his truck. Within minutes, several more cop cars appeared. They tried to decipher whether Rohn was a terrorist plotting his next attack. "They didn't tell me why they had handcuffed me," he says. "But they told me they had to wait for a special operations officer to come. When he arrived, I showed him pictures of me in different costumes and he realized I was just an artist."
Although police released Rohn, they warned him not to return. "They told me I needed a permit because I was doing commercial photography," he says. "But it wasn't commercial; it's artistic, and there's a difference." Regardless, he doesn't believe he should have been handcuffed for two hours for a simple permit violation.
And then there is the case of St. Thomas University adjunct English professor Lamont Missick, a soft-spoken man who was confronted by a Miami-Dade Police officer last year in the university parking lot as he was photographing a dent on his car. Ofcr. James Hanna approached and said he was on Homeland Security detail (which his boss, Sgt. Jose Lugo, later acknowledged was false). After Hanna reviewed Missick's license, he peppered him with questions and accusations and suggested he was a member of Al-Qaeda. "It was a very tense situation," Missick says. "He was somewhat imposing and very aggressive."
The professor demanded Hanna's name and badge number, which were covered by a patrol jacket, but the officer refused to divulge the information. So Missick snapped his picture. After the confrontation, he took his camera to a local precinct, where another officer identified the photo of Hanna.
The same day, Missick complained to police, but internal affairs investigated and didn't sustain the allegations. The professor appealed to the Miami-Dade Independent Review Panel, which confirmed Hanna refused to identify himself. The panel recommended that cops display their badges. No disciplinary action was taken against Hanna.
My own case was perhaps the most tendentious. I was arrested in February 2007, when on assignment for a now-defunct website called Category305 (which was started by two former New Times staffers). I was standing in a construction zone and decided to photograph five officers for a story about renovations and the reduction in crime along Biscayne Boulevard.
The cops immediately ordered me to leave the area. I replied I had every right to be there. A sergeant grabbed my arm and escorted me across the street. "Keep moving," several officers said at once. But I continued snapping photos, which I believed necessary to document the cops' behavior.
Several officers grabbed me from behind and tripped me so that I fell first onto my knees and then banged my head against the pavement. They handcuffed me and dragged me into a police car. I spent the next day in the main jail inside a cell with as many as 50 people. I was charged with nine counts, including disobeying a police officer, disorderly conduct, obstructing justice, and resisting arrest without violence.
Last month my case went to trial before Judge Jose L. Fernandez. During two days of testimony, one of the officers, Maykel Baluja, said he feared I would use my cameras as weapons against him. Another, Anthonius Kurver, claimed I got "violent" when I began snapping photos. But he was unable to explain why I was charged with resisting arrest without violence instead of with violence.
After two days, the jury chose to convict me only of resisting arrest without violence. I was sentenced to a year of probation and 100 hours of community service. I'm appealing.
Sudo, the Coral Gables woman, is also battling authorities. Less than an hour after the incident, she filed a complaint with the Coral Gables Police Department. Then she began writing about the incident on her website. On June 24, Gables Lt. Theresa Silverio informed her that Rodriguez had been reprimanded for his actions.
Strangely, a memo from Gables Police Chief Michael Hammerschmidt to City Manager David Brown, dated June 26, alleges Sudo told Silverio she did not want to pursue the matter further.
Sudo denies saying such a thing. "They never even asked me for anything in writing," she says. "It's like they didn't want any evidence about what had happened."
Now she plans to file a written complaint.
Meanwhile, she has retrieved most of the deleted photos with recovery software. Among them: the one of Officer Rodriguez sitting on his bike while chatting on a cell phone. "It's like he had something to hide," she says. "Because why else would he get so upset that I took his photo?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.