Jul 6 2013

Cops harass photographer for taking pictures of airplanes

Dr. Q


On July 3rd, Matt Modica went to Bayswater Street Park in East Boston where he hoped to take some photographs of planes at Logan Airport. He was able to take some pictures, but not as many as he wanted. He ended up having to leave the park after being accosted by two bullies with badges.

“There are a lot of people that do aviation photography in and around Boston and the park I was at is a very popular place to go for good pictures when certain runways are in use like they were yesterday,” Modica explained to me during an interview the following day. “It isn’t uncommon to see people there with cameras and big lenses. I’m relatively new to aviation photography, but even after going to various areas around Logan, I had never had any issues until yesterday.”

Modica, a Chelmsford resident, works full-time at a camera store, does some freelance photography work, and also enjoys taking photographs and videos as a hobby — especially of trains. Modica has a Facebook page and YouTube channel where he shares his countless pictures and videos of trains.

When I asked Modica why he is so interested in trains, he said “I grew up in North Chelmsford right next to the line that the Bow Coal trains run on. I saw trains all the time as I child. Maybe that’s why. It has been a hobby for a long time for me.”

Modica had been taking pictures at Bayswater Street Park for about half an hour when he was approached by a corpulent bully wearing the colors of the Massachusetts State Police.

“I was just sitting there taking pictures for a while,” Modica recounted. “After shooting a couple planes, I looked up from my viewfinder and saw the first cop approach me.”

“He asked what I was doing. I told him I was taking pictures of the planes. He asked why. I said it was a hobby. He asked for ID. I asked why. He said I needed to be identified. I asked what crime I was being investigated for and then he started raising his voice, just repeating that he needed to identify me, and that’s when I grabbed the camera.”

When he took out his video camera, the cop told Modica that it was illegal to record him under the state’s wiretapping statute which is false. Modica told the cop about the recent court decision in Glik v. Cunniffe — a case where a federal court ruled that openly recording the police in public is a well-established right — and began recording him anyway.

Modica estimates that about a minute and a half passed before he turned his video camera on and began recording the cop.

After Modica began recording the cop, whom he identified as Officer Doucette, a second cop, later identified as Officer Chan, arrived at the scene and the two began conferring with one another.

Doucette approached Modica for a second time and puzzlingly told told him that while he was not being detained, he was not free to leave. He told Modica that he was “investigating a crime.” When Modica asked what that crime was, the officer answered with a made-up crime: “suspicious person in a private park.”

Incredulous, Modica asked him what statute “suspicious person in a private park” was listed under. The cop was unable to answer the question, but he began pestering Modica to identify himself again.

Modica approached Officer Chan and asked why he was being detained. “Uh, this private property,” he stammered. “This is owned by Massport, did you know that?” Massport — short for the Massachusetts Port Authority — is a government agency, which means that the park is actually public property.

Modica knew the park was public property, but offered a diplomatic response. He told Chan that if Doucette had simply told him he was on private property in the first place and asked him to leave, he would have done so. This wasn’t good enough for the cops. They wanted Modica, for whatever reason, to identify himself. Modica again asked what crime he was suspected of and the cops finally decided that he was trespassing. The officers then continued bullying Modica, demanding that he identify myself.

Finally, Modica called their bluff. “I’m gonna be honest, sir. If you required my ID and you had the legal right to take it, you would’ve arrested me by now,” he said. Modica asked the officers to call a supervisor to the scene.

Officer Chan went off to call a supervisor while Doucette continued to stand by and harass Modica. When the supervisor arrived several minutes later, he first spoke with Doucette and Chan, then approached Modica and told him he was free to leave.

Modica left the park and headed to a Dunkin Donuts. He had been detained by the police for about 20 minutes and he hadn’t done anything wrong.

I asked Modica if this was the first time he had been harassed over his hobby. “Oh no, not at all,” he replied.

Modica said he was once harassed by an MBTA employee who told him he needed a permit to shoot video of a train. This incident was discussed by journalist Carlos Miller on his Photography is Not a Crime blog.

Although he was not completely sure, Modica believes the police who harassed him at Bayswater Street Park were probably called by an overly suspicious man. This man is seen in the video glaring at Modica while standing with his arms crossed. Modica said many of these incidents of harassment begin the same way. “When doing my railroad videos, I’ve gotten called in on a number of occasions,” he said. “People just seem to think that as soon as you point a camera at a plane, train, or bus that you’re a terrorist.”

Modica is not against police, but said he is concerned about abusive police officers and the lack of accountability they face.

“In principle, the police are necessary for a society that maintains order, however, the police, being law enforcement officers, not only should be following the law, but I think should be held to an even higher standard. They should be role models for citizens,” he told me.

“The sad fact is there are so many crimes that police can get away with just because they are the police. Obviously there are a lot of good, law abiding cops out there, but unfortunately there are also a lot of dirty cops out there.”

Modica said he wasn’t planning on filing a complaint or taking any other action against the cops who harassed him at the moment because he is “dealing with a bunch of other legal stuff including a pending lawsuit against the NYPD.”

Modica said he is suing the New York City Police Department because he was wrongfully stopped and detained by a police officer while driving in the city. “I wasn’t officially arrested,” he told me, “but the cop was all mad at me and made me sit in handcuffs for a half hour while he tried to figure out a crime to charge me with. But, in the end, he didn’t have anything on me.” Modica said he’s currently working on a lawsuit against the NYPD over this incident.

I asked Modica if he felt deterred from taking pictures by police harassment.

“Nope,” he said. “If anything, it makes for great video footage. I want the world to see what happens. I don’t post my opinions or anything, I just let people see what the police are doing and draw their own conclusions.”

Correction (same day as the original post): When I originally posted this article, I reported that Modica was detained by the NYPD for his photography. He informed me that I misunderstood him and that he was actually pulled over while driving. The post has been slightly altered to reflect this.


Jan 30 2012

News Roundup (Jan. 23 – 29)

Dr. Q

Here are the stories I tracked this past week:

  • Carlos Miller reports that a warrant has been issued for Hector Nunez, the Haverhill resident who posted two videos of police visiting his home during the past few weeks. The warrant is for maintaining a noisy and disorderly house. As Carlos Miller points out, the warrant was probably issued in retaliation for Nunez posting videos of his police encounters online.
  • The Patriot Ledger reports that the trial of Weymouth Police Officer Steven Gomez has been postponed for a second time. Gomez was charged with two counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 after allegedly groping a female State Police employee at a Thanksgiving party in 2010. The trial was postponed due to scheduling conflicts with witnesses.
  • WBZ-TV reports that three guns have gone missing from the Chelsea District Court and are believed to be stolen. Kevin Murphy, the clerk magistrate, has been reassigned to the Salem District Court while the State Police investigate to determine what happened to the guns.
  • The Chelsea Record reports that a man has filed a federal lawsuit against the Chelsea police alleging that he was arrested for taking photographs at his son’s soccer game. After a boy was injured by a falling goalpost, Rodrigo Blanco, a professional photographer, a few pictures to document the incident. Police allegedly ordered him to delete the photos and arrested him when he refused.
  • Finally, earlier this week, I posted the report of the internal investigation of a UMass Lowell police officer who threatened to assault a student for video recording him. Make sure you check it out here.