Two years ago I was videotaping on a New York Subway platform. A cop told me to stop. I informed him that it was perfectly legal for anyone to take pictures or film in the subway and suggested that he check with his supervisor. He refused and insisted that I turn off my camera and wouldn't let up until I showed him my NYPD issued press identification card.
I was livid. I got my way, but I had to show a special ID. It is not a privilege of the press to be allowed to photograph public places. Anyone can and should do it. I was mad because this cop's ignorance of the law most likely intimidated many other photographers. He has probably bullied others and made them stop filming or photographing AND he might still be doing it because he refused to allow himself to become educated on the law.
Now there's an easy way to educate NYC Police on your rights. Thanks to a buddy of mine who was illegally arrested in Greenpoint for taking pictures of an accident scene, a new Operations Order has been issued that succinctly spells out the rights of photographers in public places. It's one page, so you can (and should) print it out and carry it with your camera when in NYC.
Here it is: print it out now. Print out ten and hand them out to your photo (or cop) friends.
The document covers your rights to photograph in public and in the MTA transit systems. It tells cops that they cannot view or delete your photographs. They cannot make you delete them. If they pull the counter-terrorism card, this document spells out the steps they are required to take if they actually believe your photography to be an act of terrorism.
HOW TO USE THIS DOCUMENT
This is important. Don't EVER appear to be angry when an officer attempts to violate your right to photograph. It is not possible for any officer to know each and every law that they are intended to enforce. I suggest that you express that you understand his or her concern (even if you don't). Then explain that there is no law against photographing in public places (or in the subway) according to Operations Order number 14. Then offer to show your copy. If the officer says he doesn't care or says that you need to move along anyway, ask him to check with a supervisor. Make a mental note of the officer's name and the number on their badge.
You might be through shooting for the day if the officer persists. You need to decide what you're willing to risk. You can move along and file a complaint later OR you can keep shooting and risk arrest. If you're arrested for taking pictures, this will get dropped. It's important that you never raise your voice or make a scene because they can come up with something else to charge you with.
My guess is that this Operations Order was widely distributed. I hope that we see far fewer stops of photographers. I'm also guessing that when the officer realizes that you are educated on the law they'll leave you alone.
As a general rule, you cannot use "ancillary equiment" such as light stands without a permit. Tripods are generally OK as long as you're not blocking the flow of traffic. You also must allow traffic to flow freely into your frame (don't throw things at people who wander into your shot). Tripods are not OK in the Subway unless you have an NYPD issued press pass or permit. ALSO, it is illegal to photograph on the PATH train for some reason. So, don't try to whip out Order 14 there. You're even prohibited from 'sketching' on the PATH train. Creepy.