NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City police officers need better training to distinguish between law-abiding citizens who snap pictures of city landmarks and those suspected of plotting terrorism, a lawsuit filed on Thursday by the New York Civil Liberties Union said.
The lawsuit was filed against the city and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly on behalf of Arun Wiita, 26, a Columbia University graduate student of Indian descent who said he was handcuffed and detained after a police officer spotted him snapping pictures near a Manhattan subway station in July.
The civil liberties union said the department has harassed photographers, “particularly those who fit Middle Eastern or South Asian racial and ethnic profiles,” according to papers filed in federal court.
“There has been a constant refrain that we’ve heard from the photography community for several years now,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and the lead attorney on the case.
The organization has fielded dozens of reports of “bad experiences with police officers over filming,” since the September 11 attacks and “especially in the last 3 or 4 years,” he said.
Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said police offers do “on rare occasions” question people photographing subways and other infrastructure.
But he defended the practice as necessary to fight terrorism, saying that there have been numerous “plots involving photography of subways, bridges and landmark buildings in New York since 9/11.”
The NYCLU countered that dozens of law-abiding photographers have come to them with claims of being harassed by officers poorly trained in identifying genuinely suspicious activity.
Earlier this year, the city settled a lawsuit brought by the NYCLU on behalf of the Indian documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, who said he was harassed while filming in Manhattan in 2005.
“People cannot be arrested or handcuffed for taking pictures,” said Dunn.
Wiita had undertaken a project to photograph all 468 subway stations and their surrounding streets and post them on a Web site.
But the humiliation of being held in handcuffs for almost half an hour had convinced him to scale back the project, he said.
“Most reasonable people would say that you shouldn’t be able to slap handcuffs on someone just because they’re holding a camera near a New York City subway station,” Wiita said.
Reporting by Edith Honan, editing by Christine Kearney and Jackie Frank