Officers Become Accidental YouTube Stars
The uniformed traffic officer was standing at a deli counter when a man approached her and asked, “Are you on drugs?”
Taken aback, she replied, “What is your problem?” The man then proceeded to berate her for having parked in front of a fire hydrant outside the deli, even while fire engines responding to an emergency had stopped down the block. His voice rising to a shriek, the man followed the officer back to her car, where she politely told him, “Have a nice day.”
The officer drove away, and that was that. Until the man posted a video of the encounter on YouTube, where it had been viewed 363,478 times as of Tuesday.
That is a fraction of the 1,784,775 views of the video showing Officer Patrick Pogan knocking a man off his bicycle during a Critical Mass ride in Times Square in July. Officer Pogan was charged with assault, harassment, falsifying business records and other charges. He pleaded not guilty in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Tuesday and was released without bail.
While that video has brought widespread attention, it is by no means unique. In fact, video and cellphone cameras have become so prevalent that they are just another part of the workday for many police officers. And they can cut both ways, sometimes assisting officers in solving crimes, and sometimes implicating them.
“People tape all the time,” said an eight-year veteran of the department, a female officer in Downtown Brooklyn who, like other officers questioned for this article, spoke only on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak to reporters. “It makes you uncomfortable, but that’s their right. You can’t stop them from taping.”
A search on YouTube unearthed dozens of encounters with New York police officers that often show the daily realities of policing at its most mundane.
Take, for example, a video that shows a uniformed officer trying to roust a man, who is apparently drunk, lying on the floor of a subway car. The officer touches the man and repeatedly instructs him to get up, without a response.
In another video, a man asks an officer if he may film him, and the officer replies, “You going to post them on the Internet? Then I’m going to have to break your camera over your face.” But he and other officers laugh, as does the cameraman, who eventually walks away. The video had 19,370 views as of Tuesday evening.
Several videos were made by a man calling himself Jimmy Justice, and they follow a similar formula: he confronts a police officer in the midst of some sort of apparent parking or driving violation. The traffic officer in the deli drove away from Mr. Justice with a smile, but others appeared to be more irked.
The unwitting star of a video titled “Traffic Cop Makes Illegal U-Turn” tells Mr. Justice, “Arrest me,” and encourages him to call 911. She finally concludes, “Step out of my face.”
In another video, “N.Y.P.D. Traffic Enforcement Sergeant Parks Illegally” (the titles of the videos are often benign compared to Mr. Justice’s hostility and obscenities that follow), Mr. Justice confronts a sergeant who parked beneath a no-parking sign to get money from an A.T.M.
“What was I supposed to do?” the sergeant says. “Stay hungry all day because of you?”
None of these videos rose to the level of prominence of the Critical Mass encounter or, on Sept. 24, the death of a naked and disturbed man in Brooklyn after an officer shot him with a Taser stun gun and he fell from the ledge he was standing on. The encounter was captured by an onlooker’s camera. But officers interviewed on Tuesday said videotaping is not a problem for them because they do not break departmental rules.
“If you’re getting in the way, or obstructing what I’m doing, that’s a different story,” said the officer in Downtown Brooklyn. “But if you’re not obstructing what I’m doing, you can put 10 videotapes on me.”
An officer in the Union Square subway station on Tuesday said that once when he intervened in a fight, he found he was being filmed by several people. “I asked people to help, but no one did,” said the officer. “I didn’t expect anyone to help, but at the time I really needed it. It was two against one.”
An officer directing traffic in Brooklyn asserted that it is illegal to tape police officers. “If I know that he’s taking video, I’m going to walk up to him and stop him,” the officer said.
That is not necessarily true, said Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman. Filming itself is not illegal, but interference with a police officer’s work can lead to arrest, he said. “Interference beyond just merely being obnoxious,” he said. “On balance, the proliferation of cameras has helped the police in solving crimes.” In fact, citizens who capture images of crimes in progress are now being encouraged to send the videos to the police.
An officer in his patrol car in Harlem shrugged off the cameras. “It’s a brave new world now,” he said. “They’ve got all kinds of things. You could be recording me right now.”