On Saturday, 51-year-old Darrius Kennedy was approached by police for reportedly smoking marijuana in Times Square, but the attempted arrest quickly turned violent. When the police came near Kennedy, he backed away and drew what has been variously described as a 6-inch or 11-inch kitchen knife. After pursuing Kennedy for seven blocks, officers eventually cornered him, ordering him to drop the weapon and then fatally shooting him. As dramatic as the event was, what's truly captured people's attention is the huge amount of video footage surrounding it.
Taking place in one of the most tourist-heavy parts of New York, the altercation was seen by a crowd of witnesses, many of whom followed the officers with DSLRs and cellphone cameras aloft and later uploaded the videos to YouTube or sent them to news outlets. Brazilian visitor Lincoln Rocha, who took one of the most iconic images, told the Associated Press that he was sure Kennedy would be shot by police once he drew his knife. "If they're going to kill him," Rocha said, "I want to take some pictures, I want to record it." Others had the same idea, to the point where the suspect and police in videos are usually less prominent than the crowds of photographers following them.
Warning: this video contains graphic violence.
But the widely documented event has also reignited a long-running debate over the NYPD's treatment of photographers. According to The New York Times, Boston native Julian Miller was pulled aside by an officer after recording the incident, apparently including the shooting itself — something that was not shown in any released video. "His eyes got big when he saw the video," said Miller. "He went to go show his boss, and then they took my phone away." The officer apparently also told him not to speak to the media.
Police would not confirm to us whether they confiscated a phone and declined comment. If the video indeed captured the shooting, it's likely it could be used as evidence in an investigation, something that is allowed by New York law according to a 2009 directive. According to the Department of Justice's handbook on the subject, witnesses to a crime are also routinely advised not to speak to media, though they may choose to do so. For the police to view the video, they must get a search warrant, and it's unclear whether they are required to return the recording afterwards, as is the case in Washington, DC.
"He went to go show his boss, and then they took my phone away."
Unfortunately for the NYPD, this incident comes only a week after freelance photographer Robert Stolarik allegedly had his camera slammed into his face and was wrestled to the ground by police after taking pictures of an arrest. The NYPD charged Stolarik with obstructing government administration and resisting arrest, claiming he had struck an officer in the face with his camera and then "violently" resisted being taken into custody. Around the same time, the New York Civil Liberties Union condemned officers for blocking photography at Occupy Wall Street protests and reportedly posting mug shots of a couple who filmed stop-and-frisk encounters. The Department of Justice has issued a blanket rebuke of officers across the US who attempt to stop bystanders from filming them, but it's not at all clear that it's being followed.
As law enforcement actions go, the Times Square shooting was fairly unambiguous. Video evidence and witness testimony confirm that the suspect was both armed and resisting arrest — even if concerns have been raised about the use of deadly force — and officers have legitimate reason to want what's on Miller's phone if it corroborates those details. But after so many cases of police confiscating cameras or preventing recording without justification, it will be difficult to convince the public that they're acting in good faith this time around.