I really just wanted to write a fluff column about parking during Mardi Gras. That’s all. The message was going to be: “Don’t park too close to the corner because it cuts visibility and causes accidents, particularly in times of high traffic.”
Instead, I’m going to write about how easy it is to fall victim to police misconduct, particularly when taking photographs in public.
It was last Thursday and the Muses Parade was rolling. I was coming back to use my bathroom when I arrived at my intersection to see a bicyclist, who had evidently been struck by a Yellow Cab. He was being attended to by several bystanders and appeared to be moving, although he’d taken a nasty hit – the windshield of the cab was smashed on the passenger side.
I avoided the scene at first and went back to my house on the far corner. After using the facilities I ventured out again and spoke to another bystander about what had happened. Based on the scene, it appeared that the bicyclist had been proceeding southbound on the left side of Josephine Street and come out from behind an SUV parked almost flush with curb on the westbound lane of Prytania.
I’m no traffic expert, but although it appeared that the bicyclist lacked right-of-way and had been proceeding illegally against traffic on the left side, a major cause of the accident was the illegally parked SUV. With the SUV parked there, visibility was nil. With proper visibility, the cab probably would have had time to stop, or the bicyclist could have seen the cab and not proceeded.
Parking too close to the intersection and blocking visibility, particularly with larger vehicles like SUVs, can turn run-of-the-mill traffic violations into serious accidents. I’ve seen it time and time again at my intersection.That was going to be the main thrust of my column, I thought. It’s a good, timely topic. As I watched the scene from a distance, the bicyclist (who appeared alert and lucid) was attended to by paramedics and taken away in an ambulance. The police took statements from the parties involved and then retreated into their police car to finish their report. The bicycle had been positioned upside-down next to the cab and in front of the illegally-parking SUV.
This was a great photo opportunity. The picture of the bicycle alongside the damaged cab with the SUV blocking visibility in the background perfectly illustrated my point about parking scofflaws. Accordingly, I whipped out my cell phone camera and moved forward to take a quick photograph. As the photograph on the right shows, I stayed a distance away from the cab and the bicycle.
As I walked forward with my camera, the Yellow Cab driver and an older man who arrived on the scene later who had been speaking with the cabbie were to my immediate left. As I raised my cell phone to take the photo, the older man leaned in front of me and tried to use his hand to block my phone. He then began yelling at me, asking why I was taking a photo. I responded that he had no right to physically impede me and it was a public space.
As he continued to rant, the old man gestured to one of the New Orleans police officers in the nearby cruiser. Given his aggressive behavior, I had hoped they would back me up. Instead, a female officer barked at me: “THIS IS A CRIME SCENE! BACK AWAY TO THE CORNER.”
And so I did, immediately. At this point, of course, the police were not maintaining a crime scene. People were walking through the area willy-nilly and there were no officers investigating. Still, I had actually gotten my photo and wanted to avoid any trouble, so I backed up and watched. I watched as the police finished up their report while dozens of people walked through closer to the scene than I had. I watched as the police directed the cab to leave, put the bicycle in their trunk and drove off, never investigating further. “Crime scene” my fanny.
It’s clear to me that the older man thought I was a taking the cabbie’s photo, and he didn’t like that. In fact, I didn’t even believe the cabbie was responsible for the accident in the least and had no desire to snap a shot of him. Thus, it was wrong for his cohort to aggressively try to block my shot and shout at me. In legal parlance, it was tumultuous conduct. His actions were provocative; he should have simply left me alone. Nevertheless, the police viewed me – the innocent shutterbug – as being the problem, and ordered me to step away on a pathetically flimsy pretext.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I understand that it is illegal to interfere with a police investigation, but I wasn’t interfering with anything. Police who are sitting in a car and wrapping up an accident report are not being interfered with when somebody snaps a photo.
The problem is the attitude of police toward photography and filming. For some reason, the police often to use any pretext to keep people from simply recording in public, particularly when it involves their conduct. In 2011, during the NOPD breakup of the Krewe de Eris parade, observer Ritchie Katko was filming an arrest. He was then rapidly approached by an officer screaming “GET OUTTA HERE!” Within seconds, the officer slapped the camera out of Katko’s hands. Marjorie Esman, Head of the Louisiana ACLU, responded by noting that “[c]learly, people have a right to film what they see on the streets.” Apparently the officer didn’t agree.
The broken relationship that exists between the people of New Orleans and the NOPD is exacerbated by this. Barking illegal orders at people on behalf of an aggressor is something criminals are supposed to do, not police.
It’s not just a problem here, either, but nationwide. The web log “Photography is Not a Crime,” written by activist Carlos Miller, chronicles incidents from all of the country where people are harassed, attacked and often arrested for simply filming in public. In some states, police have even used “two-party consent” wiretapping laws to bring felony charges against citizens for doing nothing more than filming their encounters with police.
In my case, I wasn’t filming or photographing the police, but nevertheless the police seemed to view my actions in taking a simple photo as provocative or disruptive. This perception is wrong. Photography is utterly innocuous. It does not normally merit a police reaction, or a reaction from anybody, frankly. Conversely, cars parked up to the corner blocking visibility are a hazard and should probably be towed. Tellingly, the police were more concerned with me snapping a photo than an illegally parked vehicle that contributed to the accident. They left the intersection as they found it.
I’ve often said the problems with the NOPD have more to do with prioritization than manpower, and this experience only enhances that perception. I’ve said it time and time again, but we deserve a great deal better than this.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.