February 3, 2014
In October 2009, Shawn Nee, an award-winning photographer, was stopped by officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department while taking pictures of turnstiles in the L.A. subway. According to the officers, Nee was engaged in “suspicious terrorist activity.”
“I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al-Qaeda to sell these pictures to them for a terrorist purpose,” LASD Deputy Richard Gylfie told Nee, according to footage shot by a body camera Nee wears while working. Gylfie and his partner, Deputy Roberto Bayes, held Nee’s hands behind his back, searched his pockets and conducted a check to see if there were any outstanding warrants for his arrest. At one point the footage shows Gylfie telling Nee he would put him on “the FBI’s hit list” if he didn’t answer his questions.
“On one level, you’re thinking, is this really happening?” Nee says.
“On another level, you’re thinking, this shouldn’t be happening.”
This sort of encounter, in which local cops harass ordinary citizens engaged in constitutionally protected behavior, has become disturbingly frequent in cities across the United States, largely because federal anti-terrorism funding has made local law enforcement agencies major participants in the “war on terror.” The idea is that cops are particularly well situated to be the eyes and ears that will halt the next attack before it happens. But local police departments often lack the oversight and safeguards that could protect citizens from abuse.