LA Photographer Detained for ‘Interfering’ While Taking Photos from 90 Feet Away


Photographer/rights crusader Shawn Nee is back in the news, this time after he was detained and handcuffed by Los Angeles police for “interfering with an investigation” while taking photos in a public place.

The incident took place June 2nd, but only recently came to light when libertarian magazine Reason released the following video in which they talk to Nee about the altercation and show some of the footage he captured on a body cam as it was happening:

Nee said he was taking photos of a homeless man whose life he has been documenting for five years, when police showed up at a nearby apartment building to handle a domestic dispute.

Nee started using a body camera to capture video of the police — from a public sidewalk 90 feet away and behind a chain-link fence — when an officer approached him and asked, “is there any reason why you’re filming people?” Nee identified himself as a working photographer but declined to give his name or employer, after which the officer arrested him for “interfering with an investigation.”

Here’s the full un-edited body cam footage:

Once detained, he continued to refuse to tell the officers about the nature of his work — saying “my understanding is that I was detained for taking photos in a public place” — and was eventually taken to a police station, where he was held for about an hour before being released without charges.

An LAPD representative said the department isn’t investigating the incident, as no formal complaint has been filed.

When showed the video, the officer in charge of the LAPD's Media Relations Section, Andrew Neiman, explains to Reason that the LAPD doesn't prevent people from taking photos when they're in a public space, providing they're not in the officers' way.

When showed the video, the officer in charge of the LAPD’s Media Relations Section, Andrew Neiman, explains to Reason that the LAPD doesn’t prevent people from taking photos when they’re in a public space, provided they’re not in the officers’ way.

Nee has been embroiled with LA police in photographers’ rights cases several times before. In 2009, he was arrested for photographing in a Los Angeles Metro station, with an officer telling him, “Al Qaeda would love to buy your pictures, so I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al Qaeda to sell these pictures to them for terrorist purposes.”

In a 2010 incident, he sparred with police over his right to document their actions. And in 2012, officers on Sunset Boulevard detained him for taking photographs of minors and/or not carrying identification.

Nee specializes in documentary photography, frequently capturing the grittier elements of LA street life.

(via Reason via LA Weekly)

Update on 8/16/2013: Nee tells us that he filed a complaint today with the LAPD.

  • J Miller

    Wow so “a guy you’d been photographing for years” (your quote via Reason Online) just happened to be involved in some dispute, police get called and you’re in the perfect spot to record it all huh? Right. You give legitimate press a bad name. Do you do anything but try and bait the cops? Seems that’s the extent of your résumé.

  • mnguyea

    Wow if you actually learn how to read before throwing accusations and stupid comments. I know you’ll say it your god given right and free speech but that still doesn’t make it not stupid. The article states that ‘in a nearby apartment 90′ away behind a fence’ and he wasn’t press. He is a photographer and even as a regular citizen one is allowed to photograph as long as it doesn’t interfere with police where clearly 90′ away behind a fence he wasn’t. Police don’t seem to know there own policies or don’t want people document that might bite them in the ass later.

  • beautox

    He does not say that the person he had been photographing was the one involved in the dispute. He says ….”I’d been photographing this guy who I’d been photographing for years. LAPD showed up and there was a tenant dispute at this complex (pointing to the place)” If he was photographing the guy involved he would have been on the other side of the fence, right?

  • No

    “when police showed up at a nearby apartment
    building to handle a domestic dispute.”

    “nearby apartment
    building to handle a domestic dispute.”

    “nearby apartment


  • No

    Whoops, in reply to “J Miller”.

  • bruce g.

    typical west coast film d-bag.

  • MS

    Sorry you got detained, but you might want to work on your communication skills, especially with the police. “Am I being detained?” is the first thing you say when police approach you? I am sure you would have not have been detained if you were just like, “Oh I’m Shawn…..yea I’m a photographer, taking some pictures…is there a problem?” I have photographed the LAPD for years with no problems, other than them being aggravated at times. At that point I’ll give them some space and a little respect and be on my business. They have a very dangerous job, keep that in mind. For all they know, they could have been shot at, at the call they had just responded to, and then they have to deal with you.

  • J Miller

    A woman involved in the dispute is someone he talked to about photographing, so the situation piqued his interest, Nee told us.

    Oh and when I shoot and report I always wear a body camera to record what happens.

    Wakeup. This was a setup which this hack stages hoping more would happen.

  • JH

    Or some people wear body cams (or have dash cams) because they’ve found themselves in situations before. Setup? How do you set the police up to arrest you? Then those are some pretty dumb officers to walk into that masterful “trap.”

  • Videre Licet

    And “they have to deal with” him why exactly? He was 90 feet away behind the fence.

    It is their job to enforce the laws, not to create new ones on the fly. Whatever dangers come with their job, it’s part of the territory, that’s no reason to go around harassing people who’ve done nothing illegal. If they aren’t cut for it, there’s always something else to do.

  • Videre Licet

    There was a time where “legitimate press” would jump at the opportunity to bait the cops like this!

    But legitimate press doesn’t do it any more because there IS no legitimate press any more, only the cash register trash and their online equivalents.

  • R O

    It’s also their job to interact with and talk to the public. If you are taking photos of them, they have every right to become curious and ask what you’re up to. Appease their curiosity, and they are likely to go away. Act squirrelly, and you create problems for yourself. I do street photography in LA all the time without problem and used to cover LAPD for a local newspaper.

  • herpderp

    You seem very bright. Have you considered a career in LAPD?

  • junyo

    You tell ‘em, Officer Miller!

  • Videre Licet

    It depends on how you interpret “interact”. They have every right to ask me why I am photographing them in public and I have every right to refuse to tell them without being intimidated, threatened, handcuffed or slapped around.

    I don’t need to “show papers” unless they pull me over in traffic and I am the one driving. I don’t need to tell them a thing at all unless they arrest me for a real arrestable offense.

    If you were a real PJ, you should be the first to know this.

  • MS

    Everyone always thinks cops are such assholes until they actually need a cop for real help. It’s funny how fast that notion can change.

  • markz

    so much fail in one post… was the original artical read? or just skimmed and filtered through a pro police filter

  • Studio 210. Rahway NJ

    I don’t get this whole thing if you are a acting like a douche and piss them off, what do you expect. You can watch people adding to confrontation all over you tube. If you are shooting a dispute you may have captured evidence of a crime. So try my name is… And this is what I’m doing. Also try to remember domestic disputes are fairly high risk for the officer. Can we really blame him for wanting to be aware of his soundings after all emergency service workers face challenges that are difficult for some to understand with out ever being there

  • Larry

    It doesn’t seem that Mr. Nee has that much of a problem with what happened.

    “An LAPD representative said the department isn’t investigating the incident, as no formal complaint has been filed.”

  • Rabi Abonour

    While I don’t like to defend cops who interfere with photogs, this guy was kind of being a dick. When a cop calmly asks your name and your first reaction is to ask if you are being detained, you’re clearly looking for trouble.

  • Videre Licet

    It has nothing to do with “cops interfering with photographers” but it has everything to do with cops trampling basic constitutional rights, and for no apparent reason in this case.

    A cop is supposed to enforce the law that explicitly protects us all exactly from this kind of abuse, not to break it. You don’t have any obligation to even speak to the cop if you don’t feel like it, much less reveal your personal information such as who you work for, where are you going, why are you taking photos. Unless you are arrested or pulled over in traffic, you don’t even have to identify yourself in the majority of states.

    Think of it this way: if you are arrested, you have the right to take the Fifth Amendment. The First applies in all other cases, since the police are public employees performing a very public function.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Look, I fully understand all of that. I’ve been hassled by police officers, and it pisses me off. But when a police officer approaches me, I behave politely and try to diffuse the situation. I stand firm on my rights, but I also don’t pick fights. Nee was openly hostile. It’s possible that he could have given the officer his name and the officer would have still kept harassing him, but we can’t know because instead he decided to make some symbolic stand for the right to not give your name.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Really? You’re going to attack him as not being a real journalist because he knows how to handle himself around police? The best photojournalists I know all have the same philosophy for dealing with cops: be firm but polite, and know when to back off. You can’t make pictures from the back seat of a cop car, and making enemies with the cops in your area is a great way to never get decent access to a scene again. If you are a “real PJ,” if a cop approaches you you identify yourself. Not because you have to, but because it is the best route to deflecting the cop’s attention and getting on with your job.

  • Rob LaRosa

    99% of cops give the good ones a bad name.

  • Faintandfuzzy

    His name is irrelevant. The cop had no reason to ask.

  • Videre Licet

    There is a whole world of shades in between being meek and picking fights. I am never the one to pick fights, but I also generally treat everybody the same way they treat me, and that includes police officers as well. They are no better than the rest of us, and if anything, they should be held to stricter standards by virtue of being granted the right to apply deadly force.

    He chose not to give his name because he has every right to not give his name if he doesn’t feel like it. That is not being hostile. Hostile is officer’s reaction to it. No justification whatsoever, for either of them, but the difference is – Nee doesn’t need one.

  • Jon Woodbury

    There is no question that cops often unnecessarily harass photographers but Nee was baiting them. Imagine you’re a cop. You HAVE to be aware of your surroundings and you have every right to ask questions. Nee’s behavior was pretty suspicious for someone who wasn’t doing anything nefarious, he jumped right into confrontation and refusal to cooperate. I thought the cops were extremely polite and probably would have walked away if he had answered the very simple, justifiable questions they were posing. Refusing to cooperate from the very first second put them, quite understandably, on the defensive. If he had answered their questions and still been harassed, I’d feel differently but he clearly wanted the confrontation. To me it sounded like everything the police did they did quite reluctantly because he simply refused to cooperate in any way, shape or form. Yes, he was legal, but there’s a difference between legal and right.

  • Videre Licet

    Attack? You sure could use a bit of moderation with your vocabulary.

    The “real PJ” part was meant to imply knowledge of the First Amendment… You know, the one that guarantees freedom of speech and press.

    But what if I am not a PJ? What if I just enjoy walking around town and taking photos? Does it make any difference in your mind? Should I still be required to coddle power-tripping cops?

  • Videre Licet

    But he did NOT have to answer any questions, he did NOT have to cooperate in any form. This is not DDR. There are NO innocent questions that cops ask – every single question is intended to get you to implicate yourself in something or the other.

    They had the right to ASK, he had the right to NOT answer, and that was as far as the rights went. They had absolutely NO right to get physical with him. They were simply power-tripping and they abused their power for it. His self-chosen mission is to expose just that sort of behavior and they didn’t seem like they needed much baiting. They were not legal and they were even less right.

    Hopefully he sues them for wrongful arrest and whatever else a good attorney could come up with.

  • DesertandSeas

    Thanks for taking a stand Mr. Nee. Keep up the good work.

    For the sea lawyers:

  • Paul

    Please remove the horribly incorrect “full un-edited body cam footage:”
    Not only are there title cards, but the video has many cuts.
    Also, the time stamp in the lower right jumps from 1:10 to 1:19 to 2:51 to 3:07
    No discussion of this incident can continue until someone does actual Journalism with a capital J and finds out what happened in the TWO HOURS that this situation developed.
    Your original article makes it sound as if it went down quickly, when it very clearly did not, unless the timestamp itself is faked (again, “Journalism with a capital J”).
    Thank you.

  • Rob S

    Normally I would probably agree with you but if you go to the right places in LA you will never have to wait more than a few minutes for the cops to be around. I does seem strange that something that happened 2 months ago and is clearly a violation hasnt ended up in a formal complaint yet.

  • Rob S

    I 100% agree that you do not HAVE to give a police officer your name. And as long as you are in a public place, causing no harm and not interfering (legitimately) you have a right to be left alone. But really, how big a deal is it to respond with your name and extending you hand? I am always amazed how much you can get done just by being friendly and open. Some photographers need to spend time with hacker geeks and learn social engineering skills. Being a dick from the get go is not one of them. Granted it helps to be a blonde hair blue eye white guy….

    There was a scene in Mad Men where Don Draper is hanging out with his hippy girlfriend and her hippy friends and they are getting stoned. The cops show up for a domestic one apartment over and after awhile Don gets up to leave and one of the hippies says “the cops are here, you cant go out there.” Don replies, “No, you can’t, I can.” and he leaves walking by the police with a nod.

  • tyrohne

    so taking this one.. fanfreakingtastic…

  • Larry

    For anyone voting this down, ask yourself “Why didn’t he file a complaint?” He has no problems holding his own against the police in other run-ins. Why didn’t he do something about this one? If he doesn’t want to be dealing with stupid cops, he needs to do something about…like file a complaint.

  • lidocaineus

    It’s not hard to state my name and extend my hand. I also don’t have to do that. What if I don’t want him to know my name if there’s no reason? What if the cop doesn’t know me personally, but knows my name from unsubstantiated rumors he’s heard that I’m a huge drug addict that likes to stab officers, but that’s actually someone else and he remembered wrong? Or maybe I’m just lazy?

    The point is unless you’ve done something that warrants being detained, the cop has no power over you, nor should they. At that point, it’s your choice to answer or not, and the cop has no right to coerce it out of you or threaten you with hostility.

    The police are granted far more power than the average citizen, and because of that, they should RESPECT that privilege, not wield it like a hammer. Being nice and courteous may be helpful, but it is by no means required, especially when you haven’t done anything wrong.

  • Arnold Newman

    This is an interesting situation. The police, who were very polite, have a dangerous job. It doesn’t seem inappropriate for them to find out why someone might be photographing them. If the photographer, who was not doing anything wrong, had cooperated then this would be a non-story. I get that he was acting on principle but there is something to be said for taking the situation into account. The bottom line for me is that if he had cooperated and was still detained I would feel differently. As it is, I’m pretty much OK with how this went down.

  • Videre Licet

    It is not a big deal, indeed. It is a HUGE deal, however, if I have to do it or else…

    I don’t live in DDR and I don’t have to be afraid of what the Stasi will do to me if they don’t like the way I look at them. I don’t have to like the cops and I don’t have to pretend I do. I don’t need social engineering skills, whatever that meant, in order to be left alone.

    I have every right to be a dick if I choose to be one, and conversely, you have every right to be the counterpart, if you feel you don’t have the balls to be a dick. It is NOT cops’ job to force either one of us to be what they want us to be.

  • Rob S

    Whatever dude. Bottom line is Im all for you being a jerk to the cops because it just makes me not being a jerk more unusual and makes it more likely they will be nice to me back. Tough to shoot pictures while in custody or while your gear is in the evidence room.

  • Dov

    So really why did the police even approach him if it was that obvious that he may be photographing them.
    90 feet away is of course way to close for Mr officer to do their job

    Seems it does not matter of he says my name is or just asks if he’s being detained.

  • Dov

    Well No but nice try. Photographing the police is not a crime nor is it a suspicious act that would in anyway warrant a terry stop or be considered “furtive movement”.

    Without any of that Mr Officer has absolutely no reason to approach the person photographing or videoing them.

    Detaining him for no reason is also rather illegal so yeah nice try but the cops and yourself are still wrong.

  • Dov

    Ya know I hear the Cops hear that all the time from Perps that they were “Set Up” so I guess in this instance the cops are the perps, funny that.

    I shoot in NYC and have been seriously considering getting a bodycam for exactly the same reasons having had instance of rather stupid cops harassing me for having a camera in public

  • Joel Faucet

    Um, just saying,… cooperating with the police (like when they ask your name) and maybe not immediately jumping to asking if your being detained would help….

  • Marcus Dashoff

    I thought some motorcycle rider was put in jail for recording a cop as he was getting a ticket? I think the camera was in his helmet?

  • jkantor267

    It’s not the NSA you should be worried about.

  • Elias Allanby

    He pretty much asked to get arrested. What a douche.

  • Don Tang

    While the photographer stresses that the officer has to walk quite a distance to talk to him, he didn’t mention once the reaching capability of his camera. If a person was being a ‘peeping tom’ using a high powered telephoto while ‘standing in public space’, does that make it legal? Police sometimes have to protect the identity of the people they come in contact with, either to protect reputation or possibility life, would it then be reason enough to know just see what you might have been photographing? It is true that the law is meant to protect people but also some people take it out of context so that they could hide behind the legal loopholes which they call their rights… I suppose people have the right to be asses, but that doesn’t help anyone does it? How about just acting like a considerate human being for a change?